Virginia Declares War on Deadbroke Dads

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

A laborer. A cashier. A carnival hired hand. A construction worker. All with children. Are they the featured men and women in a newspaper article about hard times in the state of Virginia? The hopefuls for a local job training program? The applicants for emergency relief? No—they are the "deadbeat parents" who top the list of Virginia’s "Most Wanted" for falling behind on child support. These three men and one woman together somehow owe well over a quarter of a million dollars in back child support.

Virginia’s Division of Child Support Enforcement is stepping up its campaign against low income non-custodial parents like these by publishing newspaper ads with their photos and mug-shot-like listings of their height, weight, home city, and amount owed. Officials have justified these humiliating tactics by their contention that Virginia’s unpaid child support currently totals $2.1 billion. This claim is extremely misleading.

Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those who owe child support nationwide earned less than $10,000 in the previous year. According to the largest federally funded study of divorced fathers ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support. A US Government Accounting Office survey of custodial mothers who were not receiving the support they were owed found that two-thirds of those fathers who do not pay their child support fail to do so because they are indigent.

The driving force behind child support arrearages is not bad parents, but instead rigid child support systems which are mulishly impervious to the economic realities noncustodial parents face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffer substantial income drops are able to get courts to reduce their child support payments. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest and penalties.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the federal Bradley amendment bars judges from retroactively forgiving child support arrearages, even when they determine that the arrearage occurred through no fault of the obligor. Bradley is so problematic that Congress will be conducting hearings on the amendment this fall.

In announcing the newspaper ads, Nick Young, Virginia’s Director of Child Support Enforcement, claimed that 125,000 parents are behind on child support. Yet of the top "deadbeats" on Virginia’s most wanted list, not one has a white-collar job and an education. And Virginia’s most wanted list, however ludicrous, is no aberration.

The top "wanted parents" lists put out by most states are almost exclusively comprised of poor and working class men who do low wage and often seasonal work, and who owe fantastic sums of money which they could never hope to pay off. A person with a college degree—not to mention an accountant, lawyer, businessman or banker—is a rare find on these lists. The pot of child support gold which Virginia officials profess they’ll find if they get tough on deadbeats simply does not exist.

Despite this, Virginia officials brag that last week’s newspaper ad was so powerful that two of the delinquents "paid support within a day." What’s unmentioned is how much of their support they paid and are able to pay.

It is true that, when threatened with jail, some of those behind on child support do sometimes pay some of what their arrearages. However, this is usually not because the low income dad they’ve arrested has decided to sell his Lexus and his vacation home, but instead because his senior citizen parents have dipped into their savings to keep him out of jail.

Defenders of the new lists point to the precedent of Virginia papers running similar ads with video photos of bank robbery suspects. It is illustrative of the hysteria over child support that this type of ad is reserved for two groups of people—violent criminals and low-income dads.

Another problem with these lists—and with child support in general—is the hideously unequal treatment dished out to mothers and fathers. According to Young, 70% of the delinquent child support cases regard children whose parents never married. In other words, both mom and dad were poor, they split up (or were never together for a meaningful period of time), the mother kept the children and applied for welfare. The state seeks to recoup its welfare costs by collecting child support from the purported fathers. Yet many of these fathers would have been happy to care for or raise their children if they had been allowed the chance. Low income mothers get welfare and sympathy. Low income fathers get unrealistic child support obligations, and when they fail to maintain payments, are persecuted and jailed.

While Young’s lists no doubt contain a few bad actors, the larger problem lies not with non-custodial parents, but instead with Virginia family courts and child support enforcement. Instead of public humiliation and strong arm tactics, what’s needed is an overhaul of the child support system so that low income parents aren’t turned into criminals because they’ve failed to pay obligations which are beyond their reach.