Friday, April 2, 2010

What Divorce Law is Doing to Marriage Part 42

As the federalization of family law proceeded apace, and the problems that provoked it proceeded apace alongside, the feds began to wonder why their fixes weren’t working. The feds didn’t like what they found.

The feds found that when child support advocates told them that most fathers filched on child support, they weren’t quite telling the whole truth. The studies that supported this conclusion consisted of unchecked statements by mothers on how much child support they were getting. The studies didn’t bother to ask fathers how much they were paying, it appeared that the mothers may have significantly underreported their receipts.

Moreover, when queried more closely, many mothers reported that they knew the fathers couldn’t afford to pay. Some of the fathers were unemployed, and some were in jail. Some were dead.

Many mothers never even bothered to seek a child support order in the first place. Either they didn’t want one, or the father was paying according to an informal arrangement with the mother, and she didn’t want to upset the applecart by going to court and making it official.

Of the fathers who could afford to pay and were paying, many gave above and beyond what the court had ordered. Some had joint custody and were happy with the arrangement. Of the fathers who could afford to pay but weren’t paying, many complained that when they used to pay, the mother didn’t spend the money on the children. Many were bitter that the mother sabotaged their visitation and turned the children against them.

And when the studies were looked at from a completely different angle, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. Divorced fathers, it turned out, had trouble paying all kinds of bills, not just child support.

The child support crisis, it turned out, had little to do with big bad deadbeat dads. Most fathers, it turned out, were doing the best they could under the circumstances. And the circumstances, a turned out, were generated by the divorce system itself. The system took away their children, made them pay the person who turned the children against them, made no effort to insure that she actually spent the money on the children. When these fathers experienced spells of unemployment or other financial pressures, they would just not treat child support as a priority.

The feds didn’t like what they found. Fathers had to treat child support as a priority. Fathers had to repay the government for the welfare it provided their children. The system had to be tightened even more.

The feds found that the weakest link in the child support claim was the father’s freedom to choose to write, or not to write, a check every month to the mother. Every month, the father experienced the powerful disincentives of the system. Every month, he felt the strong urge not to pay. After several months of not paying, he had to cover the arrearage in addition to making the regular payments. This made things even harder. He would try to bargain the arrearage down, and the court was often receptive. The father appeared to beat the system by making it feel grateful to get half a loaf.

The feds moved methodically. They required the states to institute automatic wage withholding of child support. Now, every father, even before he could be tempted to miss a payment, would have his support payment scooped off the top of his paycheck and sent automatically to the mother. They also required the states to accord every due and owing child support installment the status of a final judgment. Now, no court could change a past due payment. Bankruptcy law already excluded child support and alimony from the list of debts that were dischargeable in bankruptcy. Now, no father could get out from under even the most onerous arrearage.

The transformation of child support was almost complete. From its origins as a living part of the natural custodial relationship that fathers had with their children, it became and income tam-complete with withholding-levied by the federal government on court-created, non-custodial fathers for redistribution to custodial mothers, and as a payback for government welfare. The writing of the monthly support check, the last vestige of non-custodial fathers’ personal responsibility for their children, was summarily shorn away by the child support tax.

The feds did one more thing. They allowed that maybe the lack of a personal relationship between the non-custodial fathers and their children was a major cause of child support non-compliance. They conceded that maybe bringing the non-custodial father back into contact with his children would be a good thing for the children. So they helped the states set up special programs to do just that. The programs were designed to bring unwed fathers right into the delivery rooms where their putative children were being born. The deal was that the government would show Dad how great it felt to have his very own kid. Dad would just have to sign this little piece of paper proving that he really was the father of the kid. Of course, Dad would than become liable for child support for the next couple of decades, but just think, it was for his very own kid, and wouldn’t he be proud. Little was said about his rights, or lack thereof, to his child. About what to do when the mother leaves the hospital, returns to the new boyfriend with child support assured, and tells Dad to bug off.

As for joint custody and maybe getting Dad closer to his kids that way, the feds admitted that joint custodial fathers were great child support payers. But child custody and child support are legally distinct. They cannot be linked. Besides, child custody is a state, not a federal, issue. Sorry, there’s nothing we can do about that.

More on “Child Support” on next summary.