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October 3, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Criticism of the system of child support enforcement is spreading.  Gradually, the realization that that system is draconian and often acts contrary to its stated aims is seeping into regional publications (Tulsa World, 9/26/19).

Eva Durchholz may only be a college student, but, when it comes to our system of child support enforcement, she gets it.  A student at Vanderbilt, she recently completed an internship that allowed her to observe child support practices in action.

The Tulsa court system discriminates against people in poverty.

Indeed it does.  As the Office of Child Support Enforcement has been saying since at least 2006, courts begin by setting child support at levels parents can’t pay, tack on interest that in some states hits the 12% per annum level and, when the inevitable arrearages crop up, suspend the debtor’s license to drive and perhaps other licenses.  Then, as night follows day, comes jail.

In June, I watched a man called to court for past-due child support payments who had lost his job as a groundskeeper following an injury.

After falling down a flight of stairs and tearing his rotator cuff, he became unemployed and was forced to move back in with his mother, bringing his 2-year-old daughter with him. On June 28, Judge Julie Doss heard this testimony and sent this father to jail for six months, or until someone paid the $600 purge fee to get him out.

All too often, the money gets paid, causing supporters of the system to cry, “See, he had it all along!”  But did he?  Or did his friends and family – who don’t owe the money – pay up so he can get out of stir?

And when they do,

Of every purge fee, $500 goes straight to Tulsa County in the name of a court fine and does nothing to benefit the children the court is claiming to be looking out for. Why is our government sucking money from parents who appear in court because of inability to pay?

In short, it’s a money-making operation for courts and counties.  Having set up a system that can’t help but produce debtors and friends and relatives then pay the debt they don’t owe, the county then nabs much of the cash for its own uses.  The child?  He/she sees little, if any, of the money the state never tires of trumpeting that it collects for kids.  Nice.

Then there’s the regulation made especially for the poor.

Custodial parents who wish to apply for public benefits must permit the state to go after the other parent for child support to “reimburse” the state for money spent on the children. For a mother to apply for Medicaid for her children, she must allow the state to sue, call to court and possibly incarcerate the father of her children.

That of course is one of the major reasons why poor non-custodial parents don’t pay cash to support their kids.  They know that the custodial parent has received TANF or other public benefits and they know that whatever they pay will go all or mostly, not to their child, but to the state.  So they don’t pay.  After all, the fact that the child won’t benefit from the money isn’t exactly an inducement to fork over one’s hard-earned dollars.  Countless sources tell us that poor fathers often support their kids with non-cash items like diapers, food, toys and the like.  I suspect they do so because they know that, in that way at least, the child and not the state gets what they provide.

Durchholz gets it that jail doesn’t produce child support, it prevents it.

Jail is not a place where parents can find treatment, jobs, money or the ability to work to make money to pay child support. And while a parent is in jail, child support continues to accrue and gain interest.  

She gets it that imputing income is the surest path to excessive orders of child support.

Child support is supposed to be income-based, but in Tulsa, often when someone has low or no income, whether due to incarceration, disability or other factors, the court pretends that someone is actually earning minimum wage at a full-time job. And even when they are not, the court demands child support payments based on this imaginary income in a practice called “imputing” income.

This is likely why 70% of child support debt nationally is owed by parents making under $10,000 a year.

I suppose there’s one silver lining to the huge gray cloud that is child support enforcement.  It’s such an obviously unfair and incompetent system that many people who come into contact with it become its natural opponents.  Over the years, the system has created a lot of those folks.  It’s good to see Eva Durchholz is one of them.

Thanks to Martin for the heads-up.

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