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May 3, 2018 by Will Mitchell, Chair, Executive Committee, National Parents Organization of Kansas

The state of Kansas’ new Child Support Evaders program functions as a “most wanted″ of those who are behind on their child support payments: the names and faces of parents deemed the worst offenders have their faces and names posted online, complete with the amount they owe, their last known location and contact information.

This is a solution for families, says Gov. Jeff Colyer. But look closer, and the opposite is true — this program hurts, not helps, Kansas families.

This is detrimental to children and parents for many reasons. Most alarming is how misleading the program is. It’s presented as a way to collect money for children. The truth is that much of the money collected does not go to the children.

Colyer was quoted as saying, “For countless families in Kansas, when both parents financially support their children, it means the difference between being in poverty and being independent from government assistance.”

Unfortunately, in Kansas, if a child receives benefits from certain federal programs, including TANF and Medical Assistance (Health Wave or KanCare), the parent applying for benefits must assign their right to collect child support to the state of Kansas. In other words, every custodial parent struggling on welfare won’t get a dime of back child support collected because the DCF keeps it. It sounds like a Catch 22 — they want to collect back child support to help parents on welfare, but they need to keep the money collected to help pay for parents on welfare.

Next, the state’s approach assumes that these parents aren’t paying by choice.

In reality, child support collection programs hurt the poor and force them into a cycle that makes them even poorer. For instance, state courts are incentivized by federal payments to the states to set child support orders at levels the poor cannot pay. One recent study showed child support was the fourth-leading cause of homelessness among men in Kansas. Forcing a father into homelessness will only serve to damage the parent-child bond.

On the big-picture level, the effort misses the mark in terms of having a positive impact on the lives of children of divorced or separated parents and only further alienates wonderful parents who in an overwhelming number of instances have a great desire to be active in their children’s lives.

The governor’s office would be better served to focus on a greater need for children — protecting a child’s interest in shared parenting, where children spend as close to equal time as possible with both parents in the unfortunate instance of divorce. Kansas, like nearly half the nation’s states, recently considered a legislative bill aimed at making shared parenting more common.

Research shows that parents who spend equal time with their children are much more likely to comply with child support orders and, even more importantly, those same children end up living happier, healthier lives by having both parents involved with their upbringing.

What’s more, focusing on legislation that protects a child’s time with their parents would not cost taxpayers a single dollar and would reduce strain on the state in a number of other areas. For instance, consider that children raised by two parents are less likely to drop out of school, less likely to end up in prison, less likely to experience depression, less likely to be homeless and less likely to abuse drugs. The list goes on.

The governor could have a positive impact on all these measures by simply directing our family courts to treat both parents equally in instances of divorce. At the same time, child support compliance would improve dramatically.

Another negative aspect of the program — imagine going to school and being made fun of for being the kid of a “child support evader.” Do we really want our children to be singled out and bullied because the DCF wants to collect more funding? Our state should be encouraging shared parenting, not embarrassing children and alienating poor parents for the sake of giving the government more money.

The governor and the DCF have a great opportunity next year to publicly support shared parenting legislation. In 2017, 53 bills were signed across the nation to enforce child support while only 17 were made to improve custody and visitation. It’s time to focus on solving the root of the problem, instead of putting so much effort into picking up the pieces of a broken system.

View Op-Ed.

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