Divorced from Reality on Child Support

By Dianna Thompson and Glenn Sacks

In highly publicized raids, federal agents have hauled in 69 "deadbeat dads" from 29 states over the past few weeks, and are still hunting for 33 more. The Bush administration boasts that it is sending a message to deadbeats. However, the high-living deadbeat dad who stiffs his kids is largely a mythical creature.

Arizona State University researcher Sanford Braver, who over an eight year period conducted the largest federally funded study of divorced dads ever done, found that unemployment was the largest factor behind nonpayment of child support, and noted that his findings were "consistent with virtually all past studies on the topic."

According to a US Government Accounting Office survey of custodial mothers who were not receiving the support they were owed, two-thirds of the mothers themselves admitted that their children’s fathers do not pay their child support because they are financially unable to do so.

Most "deadbeat dads" are actually "dead broke," either because they have low-wage jobs, are unemployed, or are deep in arrears on unrealistic and crushing child support obligations. According to Bruce Walker, the Oklahoma District Attorney who ran the state’s child-support enforcement program for three years and jailed hundreds of fathers for nonpayment, these men are "seldom the mythical monsters described by politicians."

"Many times I prosecuted impoverished men," he notes. "I prosecuted one deadbeat dad who had been hospitalized for malnutrition and another who lived in the bed of a pickup truck."

Other "deadbeat dads" are victims of child support enforcement agency errors, which studies have shown account for as much as a third of all alleged arrearages in some states and counties. These errors occur in part because the federal government funds the states’ enforcement efforts based on how much money in child support they collect, thus strongly encouraging states to grab and hold every dollar they can, even if it is collected in error.

Another problem is that, according to Elaine Sorensen of the Urban Institute, less than 5% of fathers who lose their jobs or become disabled are able to get downward modifications in their child support. In such cases arrearages mount quickly, as well as interest (10% or more in many states) and penalties. However, judges cannot remedy these injustices because the federal Bradley amendment bars them from retroactively forgiving child support arrearages.

Other men become "deadbeats" because they have been cut off from their children. Studies show that access and visitation denial has reached epidemic levels, and many fathers fail to pay their child support in part because they are spending thousands of dollars in legal fees just trying to remain a part of their children’s lives. Braver’s research and US Census data clearly indicate that the more access fathers have to their children, the better their payment record.

High profile raids will not solve the child support problem. What is needed are reforms which will make the system more rational and workable, and which will benefit both the children owed support and the fathers who owe it.

For one, states need to make it easier for fathers who lose their jobs or become disabled to get downward modifications. In addition, the Bradley amendment needs to be modified or repealed.

Also, the federal government needs to switch from funding states’ child support efforts based on collections to funding them by block grants. These block grants should be tied to timely compliance evaluations which include stiff penalties for false collections and billing errors.

Most importantly, family courts need to take access and visitation interference as seriously as they take failure to pay child support, and allow men to be a meaningful part of the lives of the children they are expected to make sacrifices to support.

There are fathers who stiff their children. Yet sweeping conclusions about divorced dads should not be based on the arrest of 69 alleged deadbeats in a country where five million noncustodial fathers have child support obligations. Most divorced fathers do right by their children, often in the face of laws, policies, and courts which are stacked against them. Using noncustodial dads as political punching bags will not help their children. Fixing a broken child support enforcement system will.

  • Newark Star-Ledger