April 20, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
There’s a two-person protest underway in Highlands County, Florida. The two aren’t terribly articulate, but they know what they’re talking about; the points they make are some of the most trenchant on the subject of their protest, which is child support. These two know whereof they speak because they’ve been abused by the system, so they’re passing out fliers on the steps of the courthouse trying to recruit supporters to their cause. Read about it here (Highlands Today, 4/11/14).
Why do I write about a two-person protest? I do so because I consider the pair emblematic of what’s going on all across this country and the English-speaking world. The family law system has become so wrong-headed, so abusive, so anti-father and child, that people are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” The two, Edwin Padilla and Patricia Austin aren’t going to change the world, but they’ve experienced the injustice of family court and they’re standing up against it. Hey, Rosa Parks didn’t change the world either, but she sure helped. I’ve been researching and writing about family law issues for 16 years and I’ve never seen this type of momentum in the direction of the rights of fathers and children. Padilla and Austin, to their credit, are part of that movement.
Padilla owes over $56,000 in back child support to an ex in New Jersey. But it’s how that huge sum came into being that he’s bringing attention to.
A majority of the $56,632 he owes accrued because he was incarcerated from 2001 to 2006, he said. Padilla has been paying a "little here and there," he said, but it makes no difference because a New Jersey judge ordered him to pay $800 a month for his 16-year-old. He is also supposed to pay $30 a week toward another daughter, who is 18.
Padilla said at that time he told the judge he makes $8 an hour at a maintenance job but his child support payment amount was calculated using a $25-an-hour wage, he said. "They did me dirty," he added.
Now, where have we heard that complaint before, i.e. that judges routinely set child support at levels fathers can’t afford to pay? Oh, that’s right, the Office of Child Support Enforcement has been begging judges for years to be reasonable in their orders, but their blandishments fall on deaf ears.
[Austin] believes the Legislature needs to amend the law that allows the state to suspend the driver's licenses for non-payment of child support, saying it only impedes parents from either finding a job or working and is more in favor of a work permit that will allow defendants to drive in limited situations such as these.
How many times have child support reform advocates explained to state legislatures that taking away a person’s license to drive doesn’t exactly help them get or maintain the very job they need in order to pay the support the legislature claims it wants paid? The same holds true for various occupational and professional licenses, passports and the like. But legislatures and judges are so convinced of the myth that all non-custodial fathers want is to avoid supporting their children, that reason and good sense go by the wayside.
Now, we’ve heard family lawyers claim that, when faced with prison, fathers always magically find the cash to get current. But Padilla’s experience gives the lie to that claim.
His family and friends had to pool together the money so he wouldn't go to jail, Padilla said, adding he has been behind because he has had a hard time trying to find a job after getting laid off a few months ago.
Ah, so that’s where that money the lawyers talk about miraculously comes from – family and friends. No, they don’t owe it; the child isn’t theirs, but they scratch together what they can so their friend, uncle, neighbor doesn’t have to go to jail and accrue still more indebtedness. It’s one of the most abusive aspects of an abusive system; who ends up paying are often people with no obligation to do so, no court order against them. Those lawyers think the system works, but in fact it simply extends the court’s reach further and abuses random people arbitrarily.
Remember the piece I did just a couple of days ago on the recent publication by the Office of Child Support Enforcement? It said that the majority of our astonishing $113 billion child support indebtedness is owed by non-custodial parents who are either unemployed, marginally employed or out of the workforce altogether. Padilla looks very much like one of those. My guess is that he hasn’t a prayer of ever paying the full amount he owes. One illness, one injury, another Great Recession or any of a number of other events could bury him forever under an avalanche of child support debt. He may already be there.
Another way he shines a light on the system is that he’s too poor to afford a lawyer when he’s hauled yet again into court to try to explain why he can’t pay. Here’s what happens to dads like him when they appear in child support enforcement court:
"We feel there is no equality of justice taking place in the court for child support hearings," [Austin] said in an email. "Some defendants are cut off during their hearings and the officers of the court then want to add what they want. This is wrong.”
Padilla, who once lived in New Jersey but moved to Florida about six years ago, said he has been belittled at the hearings, which are presided over by a hearing officer, asked intrusive questions about assets his wife owns and not allowed to answer without interruptions.
He said defendants in criminal courts are treated better.
We can all picture the scene. Judges often allocate as little as five minutes to a child support hearing. Faced with unrepresented men who know neither their rights nor the law, the judges browbeat them, issue a verbal order and call the next case. They don’t want to hear that the man lost his job, was in the hospital, his car broke down. To them, those aren’t real-world problems that reduce earnings, they’re excuses by deadbeats. Is it any wonder they don’t take seriously their obligation to hold a fair and impartial hearing?
Someone might want to tell the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court. In the case two years ago that found that people in Padilla’s case aren’t entitled to an attorney paid for by the state, Justice Stephen Breyer engaged in some artful fantasy about how he imagined child support enforcement hearings go. He imagined judges assisting indigent fathers in assembling their evidence and making their arguments.
What nonsense. Stephen Breyer is utterly ignorant of the realities these men face in court, but I’m sure his fairy tale made him feel better about sending them to prison without the protection of legal counsel. Edwin Padilla isn’t as wealthy, educated or articulate as Breyer, but he knows a lot more about the realities of child support court.
And that, of course, is why he’s on the steps of the courthouse. He knows what happens inside.
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