A little-noticed commission is beginning work in Virginia that has
major implications nationwide for both families and governmental ethics.
Every four years, each state is required to review its guidelines for child
support. In Virginia the outcome may be less remarkable than the process.
The last review in 1999 was a classic case of the foxes guarding
the hen house. The review panel was selected by the director of the state’s
Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE), and at least 10 of the 12
members derived income from the divorce system: two judges, four lawyers, a
feminist, an enforcement official, two custodial parents, and a legislator.
All these people have a stake in encouraging divorce and criminalizing
fathers and therefore in making child support as onerous as possible. "By
virtue of the Director of DCSE deciding its make-up, conflict-of-interest
concerns are both evident and also reflective of much larger improprieties."
The words are from the minority report of Barry Koplen, the lone
representative of parents paying court-ordered child support. A full-time
clothier, Mr. Koplen was appointed only after fundamental decisions had
already been taken and by his own account had neither the time nor the
expertise to attend to his duties. Yet he was told he would serve or no one
Mr. Koplen set about to educate himself on the intricacies of
the child-support industry. The result was a scathing indictment of how
powerful interests can hijack the machinery of government not simply to line
their pockets but to seize children and used them as weapons against
law-abiding parents. Mr. Koplen accused the commission of nothing less than
"criminal wrongdoing"in jailing parents "without due process of
law." He discovered a political underworld where government officials are
feathering their nests and violating citizens’ rights while cynically
proclaiming their concern for children. "This is frightening in its
disregard for due process," Mr. Koplen wrote. "The violation of
constitutional rights [is] perpetrated by both our courts and the DCSE."
The review process was hardly better than the system itself:
"conducted in a manner so questionable as to cast doubt on its credibility,"
said Mr. Koplen. "We had been asked to blind ourselves to the illegal
incarceration of thousands of citizens in our state, to the harassment and
pursuit of parents by attorneys on loan to DCSE." By controlling this panel,
judges, lawyers, and plainclothes police are making the same laws they
adjudicate and enforce. Perhaps most questionable is that the system used in
the Old Dominion (and some 30 other states) is largely the creation of one
man, who also happens to preside over the nation’s largest private child
support contractor. Robert Williams created Policy Studies Inc., to compound
the ethical conflict, while working as a paid consultant to the Department
of Health and Human Services, which in turn imposed his system on the
states. "His company’s participation in child support guideline
determination and the profit it derives from its child support collection
division points to an obvious conflict of interest," Mr. Koplen noted. "His
proposal’s higher numbers meant more collections" for his company.
So why should we care about punitive burdens on divorced
fathers? If they don’t want to pay child support perhaps they shouldn’t have
gotten divorced. That is precisely the point: Most noncustodial parents are
divorced involuntarily and without legal grounds. The same interests
represented on the review panels can force divorce on the parents whose
property they then confiscate – for the children, of course. This makes
unilateral divorce very lucrative for all concerned. High guidelines, Mr.
Koplen points out, "create an irresistible incentive to divorce for the
party most likely to be rewarded with child custody and child support."
Coerced child support, along with forced attorneys’ fees, is the financial
fuel of the divorce machinery. Academic studies by Sanford Braver, Margaret
Brinig and Douglas Allen, and others confirm that the parent expecting
custody usually files for divorce. Divorcing parents can then plunder their
spouses by an assortment of charges that are "punitive and inappropriate,"
as Koplen puts it, and which render them subject to "incarceration and
criminalization." This "civil rights nightmare" is perpetrated under the
guise of providing for children by the very people who are forcibly
destroying their homes. The divorce industry, in short, has turned children
into cash cows.
Similar chicanery operates in other states. "The commissions
appointed to review the guidelines have been composed . . . of individuals
who are unqualified to assess the economic validity of the guidelines, or
who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, or both," writes William
Akins, a Georgia district attorney writing in the Georgia Law Journal.
This time around the eyes of the nation will be on Virginia to see if it
will continue to enrich the divorce industry by engineering the destruction
of its children’s homes.
STEPHEN BASKERVILLE The author teaches political
science at Howard University, and is a member of the Virginia Child Support
Guideline Review Panel.