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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.  

October 21, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Monday’s piece involved the ludicrous situation in Australia in which the country’s child support enforcement bureaucracy has paid lawyers over $100,000 to collect $16,000 in child support from a father who’s already paid his college-age daughters $17,000. A sane system would have simply acknowledged the amount he paid, wiped clean his slate and moved on. But, in Australia, as here in the U.S. “sane” isn’t the first word we think of to describe the child support system.

But it’s about to get more so. The Office of Child Support Enforcement, under the leadership of Vicky Turetsky, is poised to make the most sweeping (and for the most part positive) reforms to child support regulations in years. I’ve written several times about those changes that seem likely to go into effect early next year.

Meanwhile, this is one of the best articles on the subject I’ve ever seen (Washington Post, 10/18/15). Eli Hager of the Marshall Project gets it all right and provides information that anyone needs who’s trying to understand the child support system and what needs to be done to improve it.

Hager zeroes in on the issue of child support obligations for fathers who are in prison. As things stand now, a non-custodial parent who goes to prison sees no relief from his obligations. So, when he gets out, his debt has skyrocketed to a point at which he will never, ever pay it off. Hager tells of men who exit prison with debts of over $100,000. These are men who, as one knowledgeable child support activist points out, “have never even known anyone with $30,000.”

Debts that high are known by all to be uncollectible, but the enforcement bureaucracy keeps trying anyway, often driving debtors into the underground economy, just so they can keep a bit of what little money comes their way. Current law allows garnishment of as much as 65% of a parent’s paycheck. That would be a hefty bite out of almost anyone’s pay, but, overwhelmingly, the men targeted are poor. Take 65% out of a minimum wage and there’s precious little reason to work at all, particularly at legitimate work.

And work that’s not part of the system of record keeping and reporting to the various governmental agencies is usually illegal, like stealing or selling illicit drugs. Those occupations of course often land the person in prison, where the cycle begins again.

All in all, it’s no way to operate a system that’s supposed to support children.

Earl L. Harris did not owe child support when he was sent to prison in 1997 for selling marijuana. He now concedes that dealing drugs may have been a stupid move for a new father.

But Harris, then 19, had grown up poor and dropped out of school, and the only legitimate work available to young, black men like him, he says, was a temp job without benefits.

“Nobody was hiring,” he said. “I got into hustling because I wanted to support my baby.”

Not a smart move, perhaps, but understandable. When a father’s in Harris’s shoes, and the options are no work and no money or immediate work and quick money, it’s not a hard decision to make.

And let’s not forget that Harris is just the type of father Katherine Edin and colleagues have studied, i.e. young, poor and poorly educated. They found that, contrary to the stereotypes, those young fathers are passionately devoted to their children. In some ways, they’re more so than more affluent parents. Why? Because in their world, where personal worth is in short supply, those fathers find a sense of purpose they can get nowhere else. Their common refrain is the desire to give their children what they didn’t have. All too often, the child support system ensures that that will never happen.

The state of Missouri sent Harris to the penitentiary in Boonville, 250 miles from his home and baby daughter. His girlfriend moved on, later marrying someone else. After just two months in prison, Harris started getting the letters.

Child support. You owe: $168.

They came once a month, piling up debt.

Child support. You owe: $168. Arrears: $336. Arrears: $504. Arrears: $672. Plus interest and other fees.

A few years behind bars and a man like Harris knows to a certainty that he’ll never pay what he owes.

Of course, in other situations, when circumstances change, a non-custodial parent may be able to get his child support order altered to fit. But the system makes an exception for parents in prison. For them there’s no relief. Why? Because (and I’m not making this up), states have long considered incarceration to be a voluntary act on the part of the person behind bars.

Now, the rest of us know that, for all practical purposes, no one voluntarily goes to prison. It’s just not that great a place to be. But the law in many states has it that, in some way, the intention to do the crime is the intention to go to prison. It makes no sense, but that’s the way it is.

Those are the rules, but, again under Turetsky’s guidance, the OCSE has offered states the opportunity to deviate from what had been accepted norms of child support enforcement. One of those is reducing the amount of support owed or “pausing” payment as long as the parent is in prison. To date, 36 states and the District of Columbia have taken advantage of that opportunity. The new regulations would require all states to do so.

Predictably, some lawmakers don’t like it.

Congressional Republicans oppose the new policy. They argue that it would undercut the 1996 welfare reform act, which pressed states to locate missing fathers and bill them for child support so taxpayers wouldn’t bear the full burden of their children’s welfare.

“I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in a speech in June on the Senate floor. Obama’s new regulations, he said, “would undermine a key feature of welfare reform, which is that single mothers can avoid welfare if fathers comply with child-support orders.”

Hatch of course is making a significant assumption — that, if we just charge these parents enough, eventually they’ll pay it. That assumption is wrong in any number of ways. First, huge debts that include interest charged at absurdly unrealistic rates don’t encourage anyone to commit to payment. Second, the requirement that any payments that are made go not to the father’s child, but to the state to reimburse welfare payments has been shown to discourage paying. Third, the existing system encourages parents to live and earn under the radar, which, fourth, tends to put them in prison.

We’re all for individual responsibility, but the current system often accomplishes the opposite. Hatch, et al may know that.

Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have introduced legislation to block the new rules, though neither lawmaker has pushed to advance the measure.

I’ve pointed that out before. Yes, they’ve filed bills in the House and Senate, but neither has even been scheduled for committee hearings, strongly suggesting that no one is serious about actually blocking Turetsky’s reforms. As I’ve said in the past, if they’d wanted to do that, wouldn’t they have involved themselves in the process of reform during the two years it was in progress, instead of waiting until the reforms are all but a fait accompli? Of course they would have, but they didn’t. Ergo, Hatch and Ryan’s public statements on the issue look more like political posturing for their constituents than actual opposition to reform.

Whatever the case, the facts about child support are more important than someone’s narrative about “deadbeat dads.” And those facts fairly shout for changes to be made in the way we do things.

Even if a father is a deadbeat, however, the evidence is clear: Noncustodial fathers are far more likely to pay child support, and otherwise reengage with their families, if payments are manageable.

In a 2012 study by the Center for Policy Research, a private nonprofit research organization, fathers paid a much higher percentage of their monthly obligations when offered relief from unpayable state-owed debt. In studies in Maryland, Illinois and California, fewer than 15 percent remained noncompliant once the old debts were reduced and they were given a schedule of regular payments. And the fathers most likely to abide by “debt compromise” agreements were those who had been incarcerated…

[R]esearch shows that the two most important factors in a former prisoner’s successful reentry into the community are employment and positive relationships with family. Both of these are hindered by the aggressive pursuit of child support arrears: Garnishing 65 percent of a father’s paycheck, so he is tempted to earn cash off the books; suspending his driver’s license so he can’t get to work; sending him bills that are so far beyond his capacity to pay that he keeps his distance from his family.

“I see it all the time,” Twiggs said: “Not reengaging with the family. Noncompliance with parole and child support. Under-the-table efforts at income. Self-defeat, high anxiety, general institutional distrust. All of that is triggered by this absolutely overwhelming, impossible feeling of debt.”

Those are some of the realities of child support and its enforcement. Turetsky’s reforms attempt to deal with what is, not what some conceive reality to be. That’s rare in the arena of child support policy that’s for too long accepted the hateful and false stereotypes of fathers. At long last, it looks like that may be coming to an end and a new era of, if not rampant sanity, at least occasional good sense will dawn.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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