Most Illinois ‘Deadbeats’ Aren’t ‘Reprehensible’—They’re Broke

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

The Chicago Daily Southtown article “Deadbeat dads owe big” (6/18/07) details last week’s “Operation Father’s Pay,” in which Cook County Sheriffs arrested 130 so–called “deadbeat dads.” Sheriff Thomas Dart calls these men “reprehensible people.” The reality of “deadbeat dads” is much more complex.

Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that 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. While Dart’s list may contain some bad actors, most “deadbeat dads” are low–income men who are unable to meet the often unrealistic demands of the child support system.

One of the “deadbeats” profiled by the Southtown is 28–year–old Richard Coleman, who authorities claim owes nearly $10,000 in child support. Coleman says, “I’m taking care of my kids to the best of my ability,” and that he’s not a deadbeat. He claims he fell behind on his support while between jobs. He may be telling the truth–according to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non–custodial parents who loses his job or suffers a drop in income is able to get the courts to reduce the support obligation. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest (9% in Illinois) and penalties. This is largely how the $100 billion national child support debt accrued.

Coleman also asserts that he really owes “a lot less” than the $10,000 claimed. Again, he may be right–child support enforcement is notorious for its incessant errors and the snail’s pace at which they fix them.

To cite one tragic example, last April, Herbert Chalmers of St. Louis, Missouri killed himself and three others, including two members of the family whose business was garnisheeing his wages. Chalmers’ withholding had been doubled and he was left with only $400 a month from his paychecks. He claimed he was the victim of a child support enforcement error but it was only after the killings that an investigation was conducted. The result? According to state officials, Chalmers had been correct–due to a clerical error, he was being garnisheed five times what he actually owed.

Sheriff Dart claims the men he’s arrested “have walked away from their families [and] responsibilities,” but research shows this is usually not the case. The vast majority of divorces are initiated by women, not by men. Studies show that most of these do not involve a serious transgression by the men, such as violence or adultery, but instead occur because the women feel unappreciated or emotionally unfulfilled.

Some of the fathers on Illinois’ Department of Healthcare and Family Services’ “Wanted” list got there in the following manner–the wife or girlfriend ended the relationship, left with the kids, and then went to the state to get public assistance. Illinois DHFS then went after the father for child support to repay the cost of the assistance. The father–against whom no wrongdoing has been charged–has been deprived of custody of his kids against his will, may not even have visitation rights, and might not even know where his kids are.

While paying the state, the father also has to hire an attorney and fight his way through the courts just to see his children. Even if he wins visitation rights, recalcitrant mothers often flout these orders with impunity. Low and moderate income fathers frequently must choose between paying for legal action to obtain or maintain contact with their children, or paying child support. These men are hardly “walking away” from their “families and responsibilities.”

Sometimes a father in this situation has been paying the mother directly, but is nevertheless saddled with arrearages and declared a “deadbeat.” When he presents his stack of cancelled checks, the state says, “Sorry, that money you paid the mother is a gift—you still owe us child support to reimburse the cost of the public assistance.”

Dart tells the Southtown that he has arrest warrants for child support cases that go back as far as 40 years ago. He doesn’t explain how a father who paid his child support 40 years ago can be expected to still have proof that he paid. This is another child support enforcement abuse–the IRS has strict limits on how far back they can go after money allegedly owed, child support enforcement doesn’t.

Dart also claims that he tried to arrest four “deadbeat moms” but was unable to locate them. Though only dads are criticized in the Southtown article, according to US Census data, noncustodial mothers are actually 20% more likely to default on their child support obligations than noncustodial fathers. This is despite the fact that noncustodial mothers are less likely to be required to pay child support, and those with support obligations are asked to pay a lower percentage of their income in child support than noncustodial fathers.

Operation Father’s Pay is a perverse and destructive way to mark Father’s Day. If Dart is really interested in helping Illinois’ children, next year he’ll use his officers to enforce fathers’ rights to visitation and shared custody of their children.

  • Chicago Daily Southtown