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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.  

December 26, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

So, having asked the question “why is the number of formal child support orders trending downward?” and entirely failed to answer it, Naomi Schaefer Riley moves on to other issues to get wrong. But the fact that she’s incapable of answering an important question doesn’t mean that it should remain unaddressed. Allow me to suggest an answer: the child support enforcement system itself.

What if people have come to understand that the draconian enforcement system is in large part not about getting support to kids, but about getting federal money to the states? What if, unlike bureaucrats throughout the nation, everyday people have drawn the conclusion that establishing a formal order of child support opens the door to all those Big Brother-ish enforcement mechanisms, like losing one’s license to operate a motor vehicle, and various professional and occupational licenses? What if We the People have figured out that, whatever our level of animosity toward an ex, it doesn’t extend to jailing him/her for the sin of losing a job and being unable to pay support?

After all, it’s not as if this stuff isn’t well known. It’s pretty commonly understood that most of the enforcement mechanisms utilized by states to wring money out of impoverished parents actually make their ability to pay worse, not better. So what if divorcing or separating parents have started “voting with their feet,” i.e. sorting out support issues themselves? That’s what the vast majority of people do anyway when they file for divorce. They treat the court as a necessary evil; in order to be divorced, they need a judge’s signature on a divorce decree. But beyond that, they can do pretty much what they please as long as both parents agree.

So, apart from that one necessary signature, why not just bypass the state altogether? If that is in fact what’s bringing down the number of formal orders, it’s certainly a reasonable development, given what we know about how states behave toward child support obligors.

In that, the child support enforcement system is a lot like the DV system. It has little to do with the realities of the issue it’s supposed to be addressing and is extremely punitive in the state’s responses, so, over time, people have learned to avoid involving governmental agencies in their private lives where possible.

I’ve written before about the rates at which people opt out of the domestic violence system. Canada reports on DV every five years and invariably around 80% of people who’ve been involved in a DV incident chose to deal with it themselves instead of calling the police. Again, that makes complete sense because the state’s response to DV is usually far too extreme and punitive and entirely fails to take cognizance of the known science on DV. In short, the system is incompetent to deal with the problem of domestic violence and the result of its trying to do so is the destruction of families and the draining of pocketbooks. So the vast majority of people simply opt out of the system on offer by governments.

I think the same behavior explains a lot of the decline in child support orders.

Unsurprisingly, none of this occurs to Riley. No, she’s too busy soft-peddling the draconian nature of the child support enforcement system.

In recent years, critics of the child-support program have suggested it’s unduly punishing poor parents, particularly by incarcerating them for missed payments. Having served as a welfare commissioner both of New York City and state, [American Enterprise Institute Scholar, Robert] Doar says jailing so-called deadbeat dads was extremely rare. And he’d be surprised if there were more than 10,000 people nationwide who had been imprisoned for failure to pay child support, less than 0.1 percent of cases.

Wrong again. This article is far more accurate and informative than Riley’s (NBC News, 9/12/11). Maybe she should have read it; she might have learned something.

But an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics in 2002 by the Urban Institute’s [Elaine] Sorensen found that approximately 10,000 men were in jail for non-payment of child support, representing 1.7 percent of the overall U.S. jail population.

That’s 10,000 at one time. The population of jailed child support obligors is ever-changing, so 10,000 at any given time is actually a small fraction of those jailed in, say, a year. Doar obviously hasn’t spent much time in a child support court, but lawyer Sarah Geraghty has. Here’s her description of the scene:

“I try very carefully not to exaggerate, but I do think [debtors’ prisons are] an apt comparison,” said Sarah Geraghty, the attorney handling the Georgia case for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“And I think anyone who went down and watched one of these proceedings would agree with me. … You see a room full of indigent parents — most of them African-American — and you have a judge and attorney general, both of whom are white. The hearings often take only 15 seconds. The judge asks, ‘Do you have any money to pay?’ the person pleads and the judge says, ‘OK you’re going to jail,’” she added.

But to Riley, the notion that the system is “unduly punishing poor parents” is nothing more than a “suggestion.” Too bad she didn’t pick up the phone and call Geraghty. To me, sending uneducated, poor dads to jail based on 15-second “hearings” looks more like a conveyor belt to the jailhouse than due process of law. Doar and Riley could benefit from a field trip.

By way of salvaging something worthwhile from an otherwise terrible article, Riley quotes Doar to this effect:

Many of these men would fulfill their financial obligations if they could. Indeed, Robert Doar, who studies poverty at the American Enterprise Institute, and Schroeder emphasize that the best way to improve the program would be to tie child support to workforce training and have the feds reimburse states for those programs.

Doing that, instead of reimbursing TANF benefits, would indeed be an improvement over the status quo. And some “responsible fatherhood” programs make a real effort to train dads for employment. But there are many things that would improve the system far more.

The most obvious is shared parenting. The entire child support concept is based on a model of one parent having “custody” and the other “visitation.” That’s bad for the child and creates a child support system and bureaucracy that’s a poster child for government overreach and inefficiency. Needless to say, Riley doesn’t know it, but what we have is a self-sustaining system that does little right but is legislatively unassailable because of the huge flow of money it involves. No one involved is going to do what needs to be done to make that system sensible.

One of those things would be, when equal parenting isn’t possible, setting reasonable levels of support. As things stand, the assumptions made about child support are based on data on divorced women’s levels of poverty that were proven long ago to be bad science. Plus, as William Commonor has shown, the assumptions built into the child support system about what it takes to raise a child are utterly inaccurate. They significantly overstate what’s needed.

Another improvement would be to issue debit cards that could only be used for child-related expenses. Non-custodial parents would then fund the account on which the card would be drawn. NC parents would then know that their money was being used for child support and not, say, drugs or alcohol. Plus, such an account could be easily audited should the need arise.

And of course downward modifications to child support orders should be easier and cheaper to obtain. It shouldn’t require a lawyer to assist the person seeking the modification, nor should it require an additional fee to the court. Easy to understand forms should be made readily available to NC parents and court officials should be ready to help in their submission.

Finally, we should expend the same energy and money enforcing visitation orders that we do enforcing child support orders. We’ve long known that parents whose visitation isn’t interfered with are far more likely to pay what they owe. But the OCSE spends $5 billion per year on child support enforcement and only $10 million on help for NC parents. That’s as unfair and biased a system as you’re likely to find anywhere.

None of that flits across Riley’s radar screen. For her, the current system is about as good as we can expect.

Still, there’s much to be said for it; and given that we’re unlikely to return to a time of children growing up with two married parents, it’s probably the best we can hope for.

That could only be said by a person who’s largely ignorant of the basic facts about the child support system. A person like Naomi Schaefer Riley.

 

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National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

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:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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