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March 21, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This article is about three times as long as it needs to be, is poorly written and sometimes badly informed (Pop Matters, 1/31/18). But it reviews a film that may well be worth seeing. That film is Where’s Daddy, produced and directed by Rel Dowdell.

Where’s Daddy is about the child support system in the United States and how it tends to separate fathers from children. It’s also about the impact that has on the mothers of those children. The article’s writer, J.C. Macek III, writes a muddy prose that illuminates little, but apparently Where’s Daddy makes valuable points.

Dowdell's Where's Daddy? is not a film about deadbeat dads…

Instead, this is a documentary that asks a new question: "What if the dad in trouble is not a deadbeat?" What if that father never runs away from his responsibility and does everything he possibly can for his children but falls behind financially? What if falling behind financially means, as it often does, falling behind on child support?

That question may be new to Macek, but it’s not to anyone with much information about the child support system. Indeed, few men behind on child support are “deadbeats,” i.e. fathers who can pay, but refuse to. As the Office of Child Support Enforcement regularly reminds us, child support is often set at levels fathers (and sometimes mothers) can’t pay. Unsurprisingly they fall behind, see interest tacked on to the arrearage and end up in jail or having their occupational licenses suspended.

As I detailed in my two posts on the thoroughly awful Steven Fischer, child support debt now sits at about $116 billion. It increases every year. The OCSE did a study back in 2007 that estimated that it would take a decade to collect 40% of what was then owed. That estimate proved accurate. Some 63% of those behind on child support report earnings of under $10,000 per year. Law enforcement “sweeps” of child support debtors in New Jersey routinely collect 1% - 2% of what’s owed. The Texas Attorney General’s office collected about 6% of back child support in an entire year.

What all that means of course is that the great majority of child support arrears will never be collected. It’s a simple fact that’s reflected by the federal government’s offer to states to waive Title IV-D reimbursements. For three decades, child support levels were set too high, usurious interest rates were added and the unsurprising result is an enormous and unpayable debt. Somehow, no one figured that out ahead of time.

In short, those behind on child support overwhelmingly aren’t deadbeats; they’re just poor. To his credit, Dowdell’s many interviewees include no deadbeats. About that, he gets his subject (and his subjects) right. It’s not the only one.

Often a father who has fallen behind on his child support will face jail time. While behind bars paychecks cannot be earned as work cannot be attended. The meter does not stop running just because a father is in jail and owed money continues to accrue. Thus a father, even if he is lucky enough to keep his job once released, has less money to pay the outstanding child support. Thus, the father faces jail time again, may or may not keep his job, and most assuredly falls behind on child support payments even further. And the vicious cycle continues.

Right. Once an obligor falls behind, the system enthusiastically encourages failure.  Now some states have suspended additional child support if a parent is in jail, but that does little to solve the problem. Once a parent gets a job, he stands a good chance of being re-arrested for failure to pay off his debt. That in turn likely means he’ll lose that job, which in turn means his debt will increase.

That’s exactly what happened to Walter Scott in South Carolina. He’d finally gotten the best job of his life with a film company and was terrified of losing it due to yet another arrest for child support debt. So when a police officer stopped him for a minor traffic infraction, he ran and was shot and killed for his trouble. That’s your child support system in action.

Rarely are special circumstances taken into account by the courts. For example, the documentary shows us that if the father's health prevents him from working, he must go to court to prove that fact. This requires court costs and lawyers and further money owed on child support -- as again, the meter keeps running.

Right again. A parent owing child support is required to go to court if he wants a downward modification due to a change in his circumstances. But if that change is the loss of a job or an injury or illness that limits his ability to work and earn, where is he supposed to find the money to hire a lawyer? And with no lawyer, the chances of proving a change in circumstances are remote at best. Again, the system is designed for the non-custodial parent to fail. And when he does, arrears keep going up and up.

If the film explores the dynamic of fathers being denied access to children by custodial mothers and the impact that has on child support, Macek doesn’t mention it. It’s a major way in which fathers are excluded – and feel excluded – from their children’s lives and deserves a prominent place in any film about child support.

Still, even though Where’s Daddy looks like a film by someone who’s a bit too new to the subject to do it justice, it looks like an effort that’s worth viewing.

 

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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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