Father’s Day ‘Deadbeat Dad’ Raids Unfairly Target Hard-Luck Dads

By Glenn Sacks and Ned Holstein, MD

“Some Deadbeat Dads May Not Have Happy Father’s Day." “Rounding Up Deadbeat Dads On Father’s Day Weekend." “Sheriff Targets Deadbeat Dads." These are some of the headlines we read every June, accompanied by stories of warrant-wielding sheriffs arresting thousands of “deadbeat dads" in a twisted commemoration of Father’s Day. Such actions have always been largely unfair. They are particularly unfair during the recession.

While “deadbeat dads" are often pictured as high-flying playboys, even before the recession the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s own data showed that over two-thirds of “deadbeat dads" earned poverty-level wages, and only 4 percent earned even $40,000 a year.

That most “deadbeats" are really dead broke can be seen by taking a look at the “Most Wanted Deadbeat Parent" posters put out by many Attorneys General and County Sheriffs. For example, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s latest “Texas Most Wanted Child Support Evader" poster on the AG’s website features six general/construction laborers, a painter, a bricklayer, a mechanic, and a chiropractor. Combined, these individuals somehow owe over $1.1 million in back child support.

Texas isn’t alone. Authorities in Ohio recently launched a highly-publicized campaign against “deadbeats," yet the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services’ “Most Wanted" poster featured a similar crew of low-income men.

While genuine child support evaders certainly exist, many noncustodial parents fall behind in their support because the current 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 a national article on the problem, the Associated Press highlights numerous cases of loving fathers being ground up by the child support system, explaining “With the economic downturn hitting men harder than women…many dads are finding themselves struggling to make child support payments that were based on incomes they no longer earn."

Jeremy Lavine, a 30-year-old Tampa, Florida dad, is an example. According to the AP, Lavine once earned $4,500 a month working in the real estate industry, and has a $1,100 a month child support obligation. Now he’s earning about $1,500 a month repairing jet skis. Yet the Florida Department of Children and Families refused to give him a modification, instead telling him that the real estate industry is going to bounce back. Lavine is being turned into a "deadbeat dad" and possibly becoming criminalized, yet his kids live with him 50% of the time.

Peter Triantafillou’s finance industry income has dropped to practically the exact amount of his child support obligation. The Bergen, New Jersey divorced dad told reporters:

“They had an arrest warrant on me. I had to go to jail for two days. I could understand if I was a deadbeat dad. Or I was on the run or something. But I’m here, picking up my kids after school. I’m involved. Just because I don’t have that much money to pay anymore doesn’t mean I should be chastised."

In the bad economy, many dads are substituting hands-on child care for the monetary benefits they can no longer provide. The child support system is impervious to this, judging fathers’ worth only by what they pay.

In fact, child support officials in numerous states are telling the media — without a trace of irony or shame — that the best way they’ve found to collect child support money in the recession is garnisheeing half of obligors’ unemployment checks.

Some judges tell laid-off noncustodial parents to pay the child support from their savings. Yet most of them don’t have significant savings, and the burden often ends up falling on their elderly parents. It is common for grandparents to use their retirement funds to pay their sons’ child support to keep them out of jail.

The recession has also negatively impacted women’s earning capacity and with child support and alimony down, many custodial mothers are also struggling. We would be appropriately appalled if the sheriffs arrested these moms because they’re unable to pay their bills. We should be similarly appalled by this year’s Father’s Day “deadbeat dad" raids.