Illinois Fatherhood Council Recommends New Reforms in Family Law, Child Support

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Today over a million Illinois children do not live in the same homes as their fathers, and one out of every three Illinois children is born out of wedlock. Juvenile crime, teen drug abuse, school dropouts and teen pregnancy are all tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor. Recognizing this, in 2003 the legislature created the Illinois Council on Responsible Fatherhood to identify obstacles that impede fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives and devise strategies to remove them. The Council’s report will be released next month. Its two central recommendations involve family law and child support.

The Council’s first recommendation is to reform the family law system to eliminate anti-father gender bias and facilitate responsible father involvement. For example, while visitation interference is illegal in Illinois, courts often enforce this law indifferently. After divorce or separation, few fathers are granted custody of their children, and most are not given substantial physical time with them.

When a custodial parent seeks to move a child out of state, Illinois law correctly provides that the relocating parent bear the burden of proving that the move is in the child’s best interests. However, there are no legal restrictions on in-state moves. Yet for a Chicago father trying to maintain a relationship with his children, the children’s in-state relocation to East St. Louis or Carbondale is little better than an out-of-state move to Cleveland or Minneapolis.

A related problem identified by the Council is the scarcity of affordable and pro-bono legal services for low-income fathers. The state represents custodial parents free of charge in child support matters, and many programs provide free legal aid to mothers. By contrast, when a father seeks to enforce his visitation rights, block a move, or dispute a questionable child support arrearage, he is on his own.

The Council’s other central recommendation is that the state reform the child support system to help low-income fathers. Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data show that low wage earners comprise the overwhelming majority of child support debtors. When obligors lose their jobs, are unable to work because of injury or illness, or suffer wage cuts, it is difficult for them to get downward modifications on their support. The penalties for falling behind on support and Illinois’ 9% interest on past due support often saddle these dads with large paper arrearages. These arrearages sometimes drive them underground or land them in jail.

In addressing the child support issue the Council recently made its first major impact on Illinois public policy. Recognizing that punitive measures against low income dads are counterproductive for all parties, State Senator Kimberly Lightford, the principal legislative architect of the Council, has authored a bill to allow low-income parents an opportunity to modify their payments. HB 4788 was recently passed by the Illinois legislature and awaits Governor Blagojevich’s signature.

The Council also recommends measures to assist incarcerated or formerly incarcerated fathers, many of whom went to prison for nonviolent drug offenses. The Council urges the Department of Employment Security and the Department of Corrections to help facilitate ex-offenders in obtaining expungements of their records. They also suggest a law or program to abate or adjust incarcerated offenders’ support obligations, since ex-offenders have often accrued large arrearages during their incarceration that they are unable to pay upon release.

Many Illinois fathers who can play an important and positive role in their children’s lives face needless obstacles. Policies based on blaming and punishing dads may make good political sound bites, but they are counterproductive for society, and hurtful to children and the fathers they love and need. The Council believes it’s time for policymakers to take a fresh look at dads.