Philadelphia Daily News Unfairly Stereotypes Dads

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Child support debtors are everybody’s favorite punching bag. The Daily News is apparently no exception, as reporter Dana DiFillippo recently penned two ill-advised, one-sided critiques of divorced and separated fathers.

In "Jail Threat Springs", DiFillippo highlights the story of a local "deadbeat" who offered a judge a "list of reasons why he had failed to pay almost $16,000" in child support. The judge "barks" at these explanations and gives the surprised father two months in jail. DiFillippo approvingly quotes prosecutor Maria McLaughlin, who "chalked up another victory" with the case, as McLaughlin blames the debtor for his incarceration. According to McLaughlin, he should have simply paid the $1,200 "purge factor" the judge set to allow him to avoid jail.

Though DiFillippo is apparently too busy applauding to notice, McLaughlin’s view of the case makes little sense. The father would rather spend two months in jail than pay $1,200? The father thinks it’s better to lose his job and two months or more of wages than pay the purge factor? This dad is either broke or he sure has a strange set of priorities.

Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows it’s likely the former—two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earn poverty level wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year.

The 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 obtain a reduction in child support payments.

McLaughlin tells DiFillippo that some debtors don’t go to jail because they "miraculously come up with the money" for the purge factor. However, this is usually not the debtor’s money—his parents, relatives and friends have collected the purge factor to keep him out of jail. McLaughlin’s admission that many do go to jail rather than pay is evidence of these obligors’ inability to pay.

In DiFillippo’s other article, "Woman starts Web site to shame vanished dads," she salutes activist Fadia Ward and her website Ward excoriates dads and calls on her fellow sisters to publicly humiliate them, saying "our men have got to get it together…the only way to do that is to take their manhood away." Certainly there are fathers who do not come through for their children. Yet Ward, who at age 27 has had four children by four different fathers, eschews any personal fault for her own situation, claiming that none of her four births were intended.

The home page of Ward’s website depicts an African-American father shouting "get outta here with all that" as his two little children cry at his feet, begging for his affection, and the children’s mother cries and holds out a baby to him. This is a terrible distortion of the lives of divorced or separated dads, many of whom struggle to remain a part of their children’s lives.

According to the Children’s Rights Council, a Washington, DC-based children’s advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial parents. These fathers must wage expensive court battles in order to see their children. Some can’t afford it and give up, and are understandably unenthused about sacrificing to pay support to the exes who separated them from their kids.

On many occasions the Daily News has movingly portrayed the problems faced by Philadelphia’s legions of low-income African-American men. In April, Sandra Shea describeda "growing population of invisible men haunting the streets" who "enter a world stripped of opportunity, such as the well-paying manufacturing jobs that used to exist." These men struggle to find jobs and pay their rent—does DiFillippo believe that they don’t similarly struggle to pay their child support?