Layoffs, Courts Put Some Dads in Jail

By Glenn Sacks and Ned Holstein, MD

This will be an exceptionally sad Father’s Day for millions of divorced and separated fathers and the children who love them and need them. Many dads have lost their jobs or suffered significant drops in income. Because it is difficult for fathers to get their child support orders modified downward, many decent, loving fathers are being jailed because they can’t keep up with their child support obligations.

Ed O’Donnell, chairman of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Family Law Executive Committee, says that it "usually requires in excess of six months before a judge will say, ’[The job loss] is possibly a real change in circumstances’… Six months is a long time, when you’re desperate."

This problem is creating many outrageous, well-documented injustices.

For example, in one case highlighted by the Boston Globe, a divorced father who worked in the real estate industry had been paying $6,000 a month in child support, plus additional expenses such as health insurance and tuition. When the real estate industry crashed, he fell behind and, with an application for a downward modification still pending, was handcuffed in court and jailed for 30 days.

The Bergen Record recently detailed the case of Peter Triantafillou, a divorced dad who agreed to pay $5,000 a month in child support in 2006 while earning a good income as a trader. When the economic downturn hit, he was laid off twice and now earns only $60,000 — exactly the amount of his child support obligation. He says:

"They had an arrest warrant on me. I had to go to jail for two days. I could understand if I was a deadbeat dad. Or I was on the run or something. But I’m here, picking up my kids after school. I’m involved. Just because I don’t have that much money to pay anymore doesn’t mean I should be chastised."

National Public Radio reported the case of a Cape Cod, Mass., father who lost his job in January but is still required to pay $3,466 a month in child support and 65 percent of college expenses for two of his children. According to NPR:

"He petitioned the court to pay less child support but … had to wait two and a half months for a hearing. Then the judge denied his request to temporarily lower his child support payments and scheduled a trial for July … typically, it takes six months from the time a noncustodial parent petitions the court to pay less because of a job loss to when the court makes a decision."

While the vast majority of those losing jobs in the recession are men, it is certainly true that custodial mothers are also struggling. Yet while people may fall behind on their credit cards and their mortgages, only parents with child-support orders risk being jailed because they can’t pay their financial obligations.

The system’s lack of concern for fathers is evidenced by the fact that child support officials in numerous states are telling reporters — without a trace of irony or shame — that the best way they’ve found to collect child support money in the recession is garnisheeing half of obligor fathers’ unemployment checks.

Some judges tell laid-off fathers to pay the child support from their savings. Yet most of these fathers don’t have significant savings, and the burden often ends up falling on their elderly parents. It is common for grandparents to use their retirement funds to pay their sons’ child support to keep them out of jail.

Judges’ attitudes toward this is usually an unsympathetic "I don’t care where the money comes from as long as it is paid." Even for fathers with some modest savings, this is wrongheaded — child support is supposed to be based on income.

While there certainly are fathers who do not meet their responsibilities to their children, the "deadbeat dad" issue has always been overblown. Even before the recession, the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s own data showed that two-thirds of "deadbeat dads" earned poverty-level wages, and only 4 percent earned even $40,000 a year.

For years sheriffs in many counties have marked Father’s Day by launching "deadbeat dad" raids to nab dads who have arrest warrants. These raids — always accompanied by lectures on "responsibility" — generally yield strikingly little money, but they do get the sheriffs good publicity. Given the terrible position so many fathers are in, this year’s raids will be even more cruel.