January 7, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The headline reads “One-third of Colorado child support goes unpaid.” The first paragraph slaps the reader with the horrifying facts:
The numbers alone give shape to a staggering problem in Colorado. Approximately one-third of parents with monthly child support obligations do not make their payments.
As usual, the article is supposed to shock and dismay readers, but, if I’d written the headline, I’d have said something like “Colorado outstrips nation in child support payments.” (The Coloradan, 1/3/15). But of course good news is no news, so a more experienced headline writer would have been called in to fix my “mistake.”
Both headlines of course are correct. Non-custodial parents in Colorado get about two-thirds of what they’re owed, but that places the state well in advance of the country as a whole. The most recent figures provided by the U.S. Bureau of the Census show that non-custodial fathers pay 63% of what they’re ordered to pay while non-custodial mothers pay 54%. That’s true despite the fact that 53.4% of non-custodial fathers were ordered by a court to pay support while only 28.8% of non-custodial mothers were. And those fathers were ordered to pay more - $6,115 per year versus $5,527 for mothers. That all works out to a national average payment of 60.6% by all parents of all child support owed. So Colorado’s doing pretty well, but I suppose that doesn’t make for attention-grabbing headlines.
Beyond the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, though, the article’s actually pretty good. That’s true despite its referring to “deadbeat dads,” a phrase that’s proven to be remarkably resilient even in the face of its frank sexism and objective facts (like the ones above) showing fathers to actually do a better job of paying what they owe than do mothers. For example, it actually mentions the fact that much non-payment of support comes from factors beyond parents’ control.
But the reasons behind failure to pay can be vexing. Some parents who owe the child support are unemployed. Some are homeless. Some get thrown in jail. Meanwhile, the families most in need of child support are the least likely to get it and public assistance becomes their only lifeline.
All true, and all of it contradicts the “deadbeat dad” narrative so favored by those who’d rather cast stones than help support children. They’re the ones for who assume against all the evidence that fathers, brutal and uncaring louts that they are, just don’t care about their kids and so do everything imaginable to avoid supporting them. Gone from their cherished narrative are objective facts, found and repeated by researchers and the Office of Child Support Enforcement itself, like child support orders being set at levels above fathers’ ability to pay. Gone too are inconvenient facts like the non-enforcement of visitation orders that numerous studies show to be major factors contributing to non-payment. Gone is the fact that downward modifications of support orders are notoriously hard to obtain even when, for example, a dad has lost his job. Gone too is any mention of usurious interest rates charged by states to impoverished fathers who often enough see arrears continue to rise even when they’re paying 100% of what the court originally ordered.
That narrative, wrong as it is in almost every detail, has for decades driven national and state policy on child support and its enforcement. So Washington pays states a whopping $5 billion a year to enforce child support orders, but a paltry $10 million to enforce fathers’ orders of visitation. That’s true despite the known and admitted fact that non-custodial parents are far more likely to pay what they owe if the custodial parent doesn’t interfere with their access to their children.
But one of the bright lights shining in this whole sorry business is Vicky Turetsky, Director of the OCSE. For years now she’s been doing what she can to make sense of nonsense. She’s campaigned for courts to set child support orders at levels dads can actually pay, an approach you’d think would require little effort, but that’s in fact proven remarkably resistant to change.
More recently, she’s put out for public comment a series of proposed changes to OCSE policies, almost all of which look to me like steps in the right direction. Here’s a piece I did on that not long ago.
Now the Coloradan article discusses a pilot program that’s being tested in a few counties there.
Against this crush of hard to collect debt, Colorado is one of eight states participating in a small federal pilot project that is trying a new — and some would say softer — approach.
The goal is to test whether helping so-called deadbeat parents will increase child support payments, decrease welfare dependency by custodial parents and encourage absent parents to become more involved with their children. If successful, the five-year pilot could receive long-term federal funding.
The verdict will come from a small sample size. In Colorado, only Jefferson, Arapahoe, Boulder, El Paso and Prowers counties are participating in the $2.3 million grant program known as the Colorado Parent Employment Project, or CO-PEP. And in the participating counties, only 1,500 non-custodial parents out of a total of 46,551 open child support cases are involved.
But two years in, all five counties are reporting an increase in collections that some attribute to the more supportive approach, which includes employment training and job search help, transportation in the form of bus passes and reinstatement of a driver’s license if it has been suspended for failure to pay child support.
The CO-PEP approach also includes referrals for those in need of food stamps, mental health services and housing. It helps to modify child support orders to a level that is more in line with the participant’s income, and offers life coaching and parenting classes. Parents who establish a good work record and payment schedule can earn reductions in arrears owed to the state.
In short, the OCSE, under Turetsky’s guidance is taking the first tentative steps toward dealing with the realities of child support and the people ordered to pay it. That’s in stark contrast to existing measures that reflect mostly an anti-father narrative divorced from demonstrated facts.
All that is admirable and likely to have at least some beneficial effects, for which Turetsky is to be applauded. But let’s not go overboard. Yes, it’s good to take a “softer” approach and yes, providing job training and employment services may help non-custodial parents get and maintain jobs that will allow them to pay what they owe. These are all good things.
But the idea that the program will “decrease welfare dependency by custodial parents and encourage absent parents to become more involved with their children,” is a stretch at best. As to welfare dependency, I see little evidence that it’s the lack of sufficient child support that produces the need for welfare. Yes, 41% of households headed by a single mother live below the federal poverty line, but only 8% of households headed by a single father do. That’s true despite the fact that custodial fathers are far less likely than custodial mothers to have a child support order at all and, if they do, it’s for less money and less likely to be paid. So it’s hard to place custodial mothers’ poor financial condition at the door of their kids’ fathers. If that were the case, custodial fathers would be worse off than custodial mothers, but they’re not. That makes the idea that increased child support by fathers will trim the numbers of welfare-dependent mothers very much dubious in the extreme.
And how job-training and employment services for non-custodial parents will make them more involved in their kids’ lives is a mystery to me. It may be that mothers who receive everything they’re owed will be more inclined to permit access to the children by their fathers, but that scarcely deals with courts that order fathers out of their children’s lives 80%-86% of the time. Nor does it address the same courts that refuse to enforce even that paltry visitation.
Plus, one of the primary impediments to non-custodial fathers becoming “more involved with their children” is the fact that the entire apparatus of child custody, child support and visitation unambiguously delivers the message to fathers that they aren’t important beyond what they pay. A program like the one underway in Colorado and seven other states, far from contradicting that message, only reinforces it. Face it, the program is aimed at getting more support paid. As such it tells fathers that their money is the only thing the system wants from them. It needn’t have bothered; dads already know that.
Someday maybe we’ll have a program that actually tells fathers the truth — that they’re vitally important to their children’s well-being. Such a program would include telling courts to order equal parenting in all cases except those in which one parent is unfit or unable to care for the child. That would tell fathers they’re more than just a flesh and blood ATM. Do that and the concept of the “deadbeat dad” would likely recede into oblivion. But we’re too busy nibbling at the edges of a problem that may be the single worst one we face and whose solution we already know.
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