Beating Up on "Deadbeat Dads"By Stephen Baskerville
The government is once again cracking down on fathers. President Clinton recently announced yet another "new child-support crackdown" on "deadbeat parents." "This effort will include new investigative teams in five regions of the country to identify, analyze, and investigate [parents] for criminal prosecution, and an eightfold increase in legal support personnel to help prosecute these [parents]."
The cesspool of family law is already responsible for the most authoritarian measures of our time: mass incarcerations without trial, charge, or counsel; an apparat that has systematized the invasion of private homes and the confiscation of children to a bureaucratic routine; political leaders using their public office as a platform to vilify private citizens who have been convicted of nothing and who have no opportunity to reply; government officials entering the homes and raiding the bank accounts of private citizens who are accused of nothing; the use of children as informers against their parents.
Needless to say, the voices of pursued fathers are never heard amid the chorus of condemnation. Yet there is reason to believe this entire problem is an optical illusion and that what looks like irresponsible fathers is in fact predatory and destructive government.
Those who decry judicial tyranny and family destruction should pay more attention to family courts, for they are the arm of the state that routinely reaches farthest into the private lives of individuals and families. Shrouded in secrecy and leaving no record of their proceedings, they are accountable to virtually no one. By their own estimate, according to Robert W. Page of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey, "the power of family court judges is almost unlimited."
The family court judge sits atop a child custody and child-support machine so riddled with conflicts of interest that it amounts to a system of organized crime. The judge's order stripping the father of his custody rights at the mere request of the mother opens the way for a feeding frenzy in which everything the father has is doled out to favored cronies. Lawyers, custody evaluators, psychotherapists, mediators, counselors, and other court hangers-on -- all of whom profit from custody battles -- have a strong say in judicial appointments and promotions.
Revolving doors and other channels connect family courts with child support enforcement bureaucracies. The National Child Support Enforcement Association lists its members as "state and local agencies, judges, court masters, hearing officers, district attorneys, government and private attorneys, social workers, caseworkers, advocates, and other child-support professionals," as well as "corporations that partner with government to enforce child-support." That is, it includes officials from at least two branches of government plus the private sector who have a vested interest in having as many children separated from their fathers, and as many fathers financially ruined, as possible.
Courts and child support enforcement officials also devise the guidelines they apply and eforce, which they have an obvious stake in making as burdensome as possible to create more cases that recquire coercive eforcement. Where state legislatures must rubber stamp these guidelines they invariably do so unanimously -- and allow their members to divert the enforcement contracts to their own firms. Some even take personal kickbacks, as described in a federal indictment handed down in April against four Arkansas senators.
The gravy train is so rife with such temptations it might appear to have been created for that purpose. In fact, this is precisely what it was. It turns out that the creator of the child-support system used in most jurisdictions is also the founder and primary owner of the nation's largest private collection company which directly profits from the system. Dr. Robert Williams was a paid consultant with HHS from 1983 to 1990 where he helped establish federally-driven uniform child-support guidelines that significantly increased obligations, according to James Johnston, a member of the Kansas Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee. One year after joining HHS and the same year the mandatory federal guidelines were created, Williams started Policy Studies Inc. (PSI). Like the federal, state, and local bureaucracies that employ him, Williams has an interest not only in making the child-support levels as high as possible to increase his share of the take, but also in making them so high that they create arrears for him to collect. In short, he has a financial incentive to create as many "deadbeat dads" as possible.
Given that the system is designed to produce deadbeats, it is hardly surprising that it works so well. Inflexible "child-support" set at punitive levels results in fathers living (and supporting children) on $600 a month or less while paying two-thirds of their salary to wives and their relatives or boyfriends. "They garnish $175 a week from my check," John Kennedy of Cedar Grove, NJ told the Star-Ledger. "That's 65 percent of what I make." The Washington Times reports that the night following the release of Bobby Sherrill from five months as an Iraqi hostage, the local sheriff came to arrest him for not paying $1,425 in child-support while he was a hostage. Similarly, Clarence Brandley, a Texas high school janitor spent nearly 10 years in prison, most of it on death row, wrongly accused of murder. After his exoneration and release the state presented him with a bill for nearly $50,000 in child-support that Mr. Brandley didn't pay while in prison.
If these were isolated exceptions or occasional excesses they would be corrected. But they are systemic. The bureaucratic zeal of those employed in father-hunting seldom tarries for constitutional rights, common sense, or even truth. Within this closed discursive world, a father becomes a "deadbeat" if he fails or refuses to surrender control of his family to the hegemony of the state. "Child support is 'paid' only when it's paid in a bureaucratically acceptable form," says Bruce Walker, executive coordinator at the District Attorney's Council in Oklahoma City, who has jailed hundreds of fathers. "Even men who are raising in their homes the very children for whom child-support is sought are deadbeat dads."
Any incentive to reward the mother for bringing another father into the system is fair game for the judge to order. Though ostensibly limited by statutory guidelines, in practice a judge is free to order virtually any amount in child-support. If a father at any point works an extra, say, 20-30 hours a week (perhaps to pay lawyers' fees), he is then locked into that income and those hours, and the child-support level based on them, until his children are grown. The father's parents or second wife also provide additional pockets to be mined, and efforts are now afoot to make these "deadbeat accomplices" legally obligated.
Perhaps the most authoritarian and plainly criminal practice of family courts is coerced legal fees. In a kind of judicial mugging, a father accused of nothing can be ordered to pay almost any amount to a lawyer he has not hired or go to jail. The judge will also appoint various custody evaluators -- psychotherapists, attorneys for the children, monitors -- and require the father to pay for them to the tune of thousands of dollars. These superfluous "experts" will conduct pointless and even abusive examinations of his children and himself, their interaction, the fitness of his home, and so forth, even when these are not matters at issue.
When one considers the people profiting off this system it is apparent that what Sanford Braver has shown to be the "myth" of the deadbeat dad is more of a hoax. The main dynamic driving fatherlessness is not fathers abandoning their children but a power grab by courts and bureaucracies to take over the families of loving, responsible, and previously solvent fathers. With each plundered father comes the demand for more courts, more lawyers, more bureaucracy, more plainclothes police to "pursue" him -- and to plunder more fathers and turn them too into impecunious "deadbeats." It is hardly surprising that some fathers who have been worked over eventually do hit the road or go underground. Again, it is tempting to conclude that this is precisely what the system is designed to encourage, for certainly it does no harm to the enforcement business.
Informal estimates put as much as one-third of the jail population of this country as fathers on contempt-of-court charges. A Georgia sheriff and superior court judge have proposed creating forced labor camps specifically for fathers. "We will find you!" President Clinton warns fathers. "We will make you pay!" This is the language of terror. When the state appoints itself surrogate father it is little wonder that it should unleash a reign of terror to eliminate its competitors. Nor is it surprising that the matriarchy constructed under the protective wing of government should use its main source of power -- children -- as weapons to crush the hated "patriarchy" and erect a bureaucratic police state.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.
Copyright © 1999, The American Spectator.