Sheriff Mark Luttrell recently published the names and birthdays of 4,500
alleged deadbeat parents in the Memphis
Commercial Appeal, Tennessee’s largest newspaper.
Luttrell states that he took out the ads because the 9,000 parents for whom he
has warrants owe their children $75 million—$8,333 per parent. One man allegedly
owes $1.3 million.
At the same time, Luttrell’s deputies fanned out
across largely black South Memphis hunting down “deadbeats.” Both the
humiliating newspaper ads and the police raids unfairly target low-income
of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child
support nationwide earned less than $10,000 in the previous year; less than
four percent of the overall national child support debt is owed by those earning
$40,000 or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study of
divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest
cause of failure to pay child support.
artificially inflated arrearages are created in large part because the child
support system is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people
face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries.
According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who
suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce his or her
child support payments. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do
interest and penalties. Only three states charge a higher interest rate on past
due support than Tennessee’s 12 percent.
Wanted Deadbeat Parents” lists put out by most states illustrate this
problem. Far from being lists of well-heeled businessmen, lawyers, and
accountants, the vast majority of the men on these lists do low wage and often
seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which they could never hope to pay
off. Even a person with a college degree is a rare find on these lists.
child support enforcement agencies are notorious for their bureaucratic bungling
and incessant computer errors. When other law enforcement officials have
published “deadbeat” parent lists similar to Luttrell’s, innocent people have
been vilified and subjected to public ridicule.
when the Louisville Courier-Journal published the names and addresses of
1,000 alleged child support scofflaws in July of last year on behalf of Jefferson County Attorney
Irv Maze, they listed James H. Frazier as a deadbeat
who owes $57,000. Unfortunately, they listed his name above the home address of
James R. Frazier.
WAVE 3 TV in
Louisville reported that James R. Frazier and his wife Bertha--both of whom
seethed at being publicly humiliated--had been erroneously targeted by Maze
before, and had spent years fighting to straighten out the error. Maze’s office had previously acknowledged its mistake--and then went ahead and
published the erroneous information anyway. In fact, as of October 1--over two
still had not corrected the error on his list of 1,000 "deadbeats" on the County
ABC 7 KGO News
in San Francisco, California has followed the saga of Alex Mendez, a childless
man who has been mistakenly targeted for alleged overdue child support five
times in the past three years by two different counties. After embarrassing
media coverage, local enforcement officials repeatedly pledged to fix the error
but have failed to do so.
published by the Commercial Appeal appears to have similar problems.
Memphis’ News Channel 3 WREG quotes a juvenile court source as saying that some
of those on the list may have already paid their child support. Nicholas
Burchett of WREG was shocked and angered to find his father listed as a
“deadbeat”—the man has been dead for 14 years.
News-WPTY reports that the Department of Human Services lost thousands of
dollars of child support paid by Hugh Jones of Memphis, leaving Jones with a
$10,000 child support arrearage. According to WPTY, DHS cashed Jones’ checks
six times but, despite Jones’ detailed documentation, has failed to credit his
account. WPTY reports that Jones “has to continue paying his child support if he
wants to remain a free man” and avoid jail, even though his “debt” consists of
money he has already paid.
In the wake of
the Louisville ads Maze wrote a column in which he claimed that his
policies "make a clear distinction between 'dead broke' and 'dead beat' among
child support obligors." As an example, Maze explained “One parent, whose name
is not on the list, but who is behind in her payments, contacted my office
stating that she had been unable to find steady employment,” and says his office
offered her assistance in seeking employment.
support expert Jane Spies of the National Family Justice Association discovered
that although Maze says this woman was not
on his published deadbeat list, in a previous interview on National Public Radio
Maze spoke of the same woman, and said she "saw her name in the newspaper" and
contacted him. In other words, Maze admits that the woman was too poor to pay
her child support, but he nevertheless publicly humiliated her by publishing her
name and address. Many if not most of those targeted in Luttrell’s raids and
ads are in similar situations.
Luttrell’s list no doubt contains some bad actors, the larger problem lies not
with non-custodial parents, but instead with the child support system. Instead
of public humiliation and strong arm tactics, the system needs to be reformed so
low income parents aren't turned into criminals because they’ve failed to pay
obligations which are beyond their reach.
This article first appeared in the
Tennessee Tribune (4/27/06).
Jeffery M. Leving
is one of America's most prominent family law attorneys.
He is the author of the book Fathers' Rights:
Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved
in a Custody Dispute. His website is
Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of America's
largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at
via email at Glenn@GlennSacks.com.