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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

August 20, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The Nebraska Unicameral legislature hasn’t been in session in many months, but that doesn’t mean the drive for equal parenting in the state has stalled. No, pro-equal parenting forces are still on the move and it looks like some of the more recalcitrant office-holders may be showing signs of seeing the light. Senator Brad Ashford, who was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee last session, took a lot of heat for failing to move an equal parenting bill to the floor of the Unicameral for a vote. That occurred despite the fact that the wording of the bill had been passed on by pro-dad activists and by those in the domestic violence community.

That failure on Ashford’s part plus the fact that he’s term-limited, mean he’s now saying all the right words on equal parenting and child support reform that looks likely to be front and center of the legislative agenda next term. Ashford now heads a special legislative commission that’s gathering testimony on child support with an eye to recommending changes to current law. Here (1011NOW, 8/15/14) and here (KETV, 8/15/14) are two recent articles about what’s going on.

As is the case throughout the country, Nebraska judges order non-custodial parents to pay more than they’re able in child support. The unsurprising result is that many fall behind, arrears build up and interest kicks in meaning many find themselves in a hole they can’t get out of.

"If you go take what a social service worker makes and do the calculations on child support- even if you had a small car payment, you have to decide who you pay. Who do I not pay? Do I not pay my child support? Do I not pay for day car? To I not pay my car? Do I not pay my student loan? All these things have a negative effect," said Lance Balkus.

For years now, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has been pleading with states to stop setting child support orders higher than parents can pay, but their pleas are uniformly ignored. That’s likely because states have become addicted to the bountiful flow of cash that comes from the very same OCSE for every dollar of child support collected. So getting them to change has proven to be hard, despite the fact that having countless thousands of parents in arrears, parents without driver’s licenses, parents in jail for non-payment, serves no one’s interests. The idea that a parent in jail who can’t pay is better for a child than a parent out of prison who can’t pay is absurd enough you’d think anyone could see it. But states seem only interested in the pipeline from Washington and kids going without parents are just collateral damage.

Legal Aid, an Omaha nonprofit organization, said payments for some parents are unrealistically high and don’t change or are slow to change if the person loses their job or their financial status changes. It places them in a rut they can’t climb out of.

“They are incredibly broken and ashamed. And when they are broken and ashamed, it interferes with their relationships with their children,” said Muirne Heaney, an attorney for Legal Aid.

It’s the same old story. Judges will impute income to a non-custodial parent at the drop of a hat, just to make sure the amount of child support ordered is as high as possible. But when that same parent loses a job or becomes disabled and can’t work, all of a sudden the wheels of child support “justice” grind to a halt. The longer it takes to get an order modified to reflect reality, the more the parent has to pay, the higher the arrears and the more the state will eventually be paid by the feds when he does.

The entire concept behind all the many inequities and outrages of the child support system is that fathers are deadbeats who don’t care about their kids and will do anything in their power to avoid supporting them. Never mind that that’s just flat wrong in the great majority of cases. Never mind the social science showing fathers’ passionate devotion to their children. And never mind the science, now some 20 years old, that fathers whose access to their kids isn’t obstructed by their ex-wives are far more likely to pay what they owe. No, the truth about who fathers are and what makes them tick takes a backseat to pure venality on the part of office-holders and often custodial parents.

But now Ashford seems to be taking it for granted that some form of equal parenting legislation will come about when the next Unicameral opens its doors.

The chair of the commission, Brad Ashford, agrees changes need to be made to allow more equal time for both parents.

“Let's make sure the child support piece is right as well, so that when we think about equal parenting -- the child support guidelines reflect the reality of daily life,” said Ashford.

Both changes would be welcome and we’ll see how things play out, all the while keeping in mind the fact that it was Ashford who killed the equal parenting bill earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Ashford’s commission was taking testimony last week from a number of pro-shared parenting folks and those interested in bringing child support laws into the real world. One of those was a veteran who’d lost his right leg below the knee, Ben Marksmeier.

“The only thing I was thinking about was my son, my unborn child, and then I come back only to have him ripped out of my life,” said Marksmeier.

Marksmeier and other noncustodial fathers told their emotional stories to a special commission looking into revising the state’s child support guidelines.

“I currently only see my child for four hours a month. Four hours,” said Marksmeier.

It’s a heartbreaking story and one we’d expect to play well with the commission, but there are still plenty of folks in Nebraska for whom any improvement in children’s rights to their fathers is too much. By now they literally have nothing with which to oppose increased parenting time for fathers, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do their utmost to keep kids and dads apart.

Stay tuned.

#NebraskaUnicameral, #equalparenting, #SenatorBradAshford

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