INSIGHT MAGAZINE
May 2, 2000     
             

Symposium 

             
Q: Are fathers getting a fair shake from the child-support system? 

No: The system is criminalizing honest fathers and demoralizing their children.
 
                                
By Stephen Baskerville
                               
                               A 41-year-old welder from Milford, N.H., recently received what some are calling a death sentence for losing his job. That is not how the charges against him read of course, nor could they, because he was never charged with or tried for any crime.
                               Brian Armstrong was a father who lost his job and allegedly fell behind on child support. Though actively looking for work, he was jailed Jan. 11. One week later he was dead, apparently the victim of a beating by correctional officers. No one alleges Armstrong did anything to provoke the beating. Another inmate saw him taken to a room with a "restraining chair" and then heard screaming for 15 minutes before seeing Armstrong dragged away. Medical workers told his mother that his body was covered with bruises and that he died of a massive head injury, though more than two months later she is unable to get a death certificate with an official cause of death. "I feel there is something very remiss," Armstrong's mother told me.
                               How typical was Armstrong's punishment? We do not know. Some fathers' groups have alleged police beatings in the past but have been unable to document their claims. Other allegations of prisoner mistreatment have been directed at the Hillsborough County, N.H., facility, where Armstrong was being held, and it is under investigation. But the victim of the worst brutality appears to be Armstrong - a father convicted of nothing. Was he beaten up because he was a "deadbeat dad," a member of a class of officially designated villains? No other group can have their constitutional rights simply set aside. No other group can be demonized in the mass media by their own government and their highest leaders with no right to reply in their own defense.
                               Fatal beatings of fathers are probably not widespread in U.S. jails, but the Armstrong case illustrates that something is seriously wrong with the punitive measures taken against parents who have fallen victim to the divorce machinery.
                               Another fatality that recently has come to light exemplifies a much more common form of "death sentence" routinely meted out to fathers. In March, Darrin White of Prince George, British Columbia, was denied all contact with three of his children, evicted from his home and ordered to pay $2,071 a month out of his $2,200 monthly salary for child and spousal support. White also was required to pay double court costs for a divorce that, according to his family, he never sought or agreed to. In fact, the judgment was even more severe, since White paid an additional $439 to support a fourth child from a previous marriage. According to sources close to White's family, the stress of losing his children rendered him medically unfit for his job as a locomotive engineer, leaving him $950 a month in disability pay. In March, White hanged himself from a tree near his home. No evidence of any wrongdoing was ever presented against him.
                               The fate of White is increasingly common. "There is nothing unusual about this judgment," the Vancouver Sun quotes former British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Lloyd McKenzie, who pointed out that the judge in White's case applied standardized guidelines for spousal and child support. Essentially the same guidelines are used in the United States and many other countries, with similar consequences. In Britain a group called the National Association for Child Support Action has published a "Book of the Dead" chronicling 55 cases where the official court coroner concluded fathers were driven to suicide because of judgments from divorce courts and hounding by child-support agencies. According to Health Canada statistics, suicide among younger men has risen dramatically along with the divorce rate and about 80 percent of suicides in Canada are male.
                               The courts that issue these draconian sentences are not criminal courts. They are "family courts," infamous bureaucratic tribunals once characterized by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas as "kangaroo" courts. They largely are immune from constitutional protections of due process and have almost unlimited powers to destroy families and lives, usually of citizens who have done nothing legally wrong.
                               Armstrong did not "abandon" his children, as President Clinton likes to say of the deadbeat-dad class. He merely lost his job. "That didn't mean he didn't love his son. He saw his son. He called him every week," according to Armstrong's former wife. "I'm having a hard time. My son's having a hard time because there's just too many unanswered questions," she told the Manchester Union-Leader.
                               How is it possible in the United States for a citizen to be jailed without trial and beaten to death? How can citizens charged with no wrongdoing lose their children and be forced to pay charges that are clearly beyond their means and then punished as criminals when they inevitably fall short?
                               The dirty secret of the divorce industry is that child support has little to do with supporting children and everything to do with increasing the power of adults: judges, lawyers, district attorneys, social workers, bureaucratic police and many others who have a vested interest in separating as many children as possible from their fathers. By then setting child support, alimony, court-ordered attorneys' fees and other arbitrary charges at levels that are impossible to pay, and bringing the full force of the state to bear on those who fail to pay them, the divorce industry has created a perpetual-motion machine that thrives and grows by destroying fathers and families. Here we have a textbook example of bureaucratic aggrandizement: With each plundered father comes the demand for more courts, more lawyers, more bureaucracy, more plainclothes police and private collection agencies to "pursue" him and to plunder more fathers and turn them also into impecunious deadbeats.
                               Like so much political chicanery today, all this is conducted in the name of children. Yet they are in fact its greatest victims, cynically exploited in a game of power played by grown-ups.
                               "My dad was abused by the justice system," writes White's eldest daughter, who is 14. "My dad was a very good father and wanted the best for all four of his children. All of us children were his life. He wanted everything he could possibly give to his children and what he couldn't. The most important thing he gave his children were his love, and being there for them. He loved all of his kids equally, and with all his heart. He was a kind man who fought a good fight but no matter what he did or said he could never win with this system. Things need to change for all fathers going through this same thing. We need to help; too many kids go without a father because of this; too many kids are hurt."
                               The story of White's suicide has been carried on the front pages of several Canadian dailies, and two members of of Canada's Parliament have issued urgent calls for changes in the law. Similar cases here in the United States receive no attention from the national press or politicians, and Armstrong's death hardly has been noticed outside New Hampshire. Had he died at the hands of jailers in China or Turkey or Iran, or had he been jailed for any other cause, we would have expected protests from civil-liberties and human-rights organizations. But because he was a father who was alleged (but never proved) to be behind on his child support, he likely will be forgotten as one more deadbeat.
                               We should not be entirely surprised that a system of involuntary divorce and forced separation of parents from their children has led us down the path of government-sponsored death. When we grant people the power to commandeer the coercive apparatus of the state - courts, police and jails - to punish family members for hurt feelings or ordinary family differences, we are engaged in a very deadly business indeed. We have constructed a highly invasive government machinery to administer a punitive regime against forcibly divorced parents: Their movements are controlled; their private lives are monitored; they are interrogated behind closed doors; their homes are entered; their personal papers are examined; they are placed under restraining orders; their children are used as informers against them; their savings are confiscated and their wages attached; and their names are entered on various government registers - all before they have been charged with any crime. The government knows that by taking a man's children it has created an outlaw.
                               What we are seeing today is nothing less than the criminalization of fatherhood: Fathers turned into criminals not by anything they have done but by the power of the state to seize control of their children and use them as tools and weapons to further increase government power. Alarmingly, this presumption of guilt is rapidly being extended to the rest of us.
                               The child-support enforcement office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is compiling information not only on fathers who owe child support but on all citizens. The rationale is that the child-support system renders us all potential criminals against whom preemptive enforcement measures must be initiated now in anticipation of our likely future criminality. "Some people have argued that the state should only collect the names of child-support obligors, not the general population," notes Teresa A. Myers of the National Council of State Legislatures. "But this argument ignores the primary reason for collecting the names," she explains with chilling directness: "At one point or another, many people will either be obligated to pay or eligible to receive child support."
                               Some see the government's destruction of the family as the logical culmination of the "nanny state" - the state that attends to all our wants and protects us from ourselves and so gradually makes families and parents seem unnecessary. But a more accurate designation right now may be the "paternal state," the state as surrogate father that provides and protects, and sets out to eliminate its rivals. The divorce industry is the most dangerous violator of constitutional rights in America today and the most destructive institution of our families and social order. It is time for a congressional investigation.
                               
                               Baskerville is a professor of political science at Howard University in Washington and serves as spokesman for Men, Fathers and Children International. 
                                
                                
                                
Yes: Fathers, as part of the family, are being treated more fairly now than ever before.
By Dianna Durham-McLoud
                               
                               As a child-support veteran, I can well remember the time when fathers of children who lived in single-parent households routinely were referred to as "absent parents." Many believed that the only objective of child support was to get the money - as much as you could, any way you could - and that nothing else mattered. Our customers were children and their mothers, period. Today, we understand that child support is about putting children first and supporting families. Family has been redefined to include fathers, and fathers are getting a fairer shake than ever before by our nation's child-support system.
                               In the mid-1990s Elaine Sorensen and Mark Turner of the Urban Institute conducted an extensive literature review in the area of child-support policy. Five barriers within the child-support system that discouraged noncustodial fathers' involvement in the lives of their children were identified.
                               The first barrier identified was a very slow, excessively bureaucratized paternity-establishment process enmeshed in the court system and viewed by unmarried fathers as punitive. As a result of federal initiatives, paternity-establishment practices have changed dramatically. Today, the process is a civil, rather than a criminal, matter. States have created voluntary, hospital-based paternity-acknowledgment programs in which unmarried parents are exposed to the importance of establishing paternity, the legal rights of both parties are explained and interested parents can be assisted in taking the steps to establish paternity at the time of the baby's birth if they wish to do so. Paternity-establishment rates have soared - 1.5 million established and acknowledged in fiscal 1998 - providing more children with access to Social Security, pension and retirement benefits, health insurance and child support.
                               The second barrier identified in the study was retention by the state of all but $50 per month of any child-support payments made to families receiving public assistance in order to offset welfare costs. This served as a disincentive for fathers to pay child support through official channels since they perceived that very little of it actually benefited their children. The Clinton/Gore administration's fiscal 2001 budget proposal contains a new fatherhood initiative that will enable states to simplify distribution rules and provide incentives to states that pass through more child-support payments directly to families. Under the administration's budget proposal, families that have left welfare will be able to keep all the child support paid by the noncustodial parent; families still working their way off welfare will be able to keep up to $100 a month more than the state's current pass-through. These proposals will create a clear connection between what a father pays and what his family gets, giving fathers more reason to cooperate with the child-support system.
                                A third barrier is that child-support policies were not designed to accommodate noncustodial fathers who had a limited ability to pay child support. Let me state clearly that noncustodial parents are a diverse group of individuals. One segment is comprised of those who are able to pay child support and do so. Then, there are those fathers who can afford to pay but choose not to, and the full array of enforcement tools should be aggressively used against them. The last segment of the noncustodial-parent population is the fathers who are too poor to pay child support. They have been deemed "dead-broke dads." Recognizing the reality of the dead-broke dad has important policy implications for the child-support community. There is a growing movement toward establishing partnerships to address the needs of this population. Lawmakers are considering flexible support orders that both reflect dead-broke dads' current economic circumstances and provide employment and training assistance to enable them to meet their child-support obligations.
                               A 1999 study by policy specialist Dana Reichert of the National Conference of State Legislatures highlights collaborative relationships formed between community-based organizations that operate father-focused programs, child-support agencies and the court system. Involvement with the courts and child-support agencies assists these programs in bargaining modifications, reductions in arrearages and payment plans. By forming partnerships, programs are able to deal with all aspects of a father's situation, such as employment, answering to arrearages, modifying support payments and helping fathers learn parenting skills.
                               In Illinois, for example, unemployed fathers who come before the courts can be directly referred to child-support enforcement agency officials who work with the court to modify or "stay" court orders while a father is in a work or training program so that additional arrearages do not accumulate. The court also has the authority to forgive a portion of past arrearages if a father successfully completes a training program. The Illinois child-support agency has partnerships with a variety of community organizations to administer training, résumé-writing, life skills and linkages to agencies handling substance abuse and mental-health issues.
                               There are success stories! An Illinois child-support agency worked with one father who was more than $40,000 in arrears with his child support. After months of failed efforts to locate him, he was found in a homeless shelter out of state where he had been receiving food stamps. After he moved back to Illinois, the agency was able to connect him with some basic employment services and a substance-abuse program. The father was able to secure a job with a local drug-store chain, where he was promoted to a managerial position six months later. When he appeared in court, the judge reduced his arrearages by $30,000 due to his diligence and progress in employment. He continues to pay regular child support and plays an active role in the life of his children.
                               Another success is the innovative partnership program in Marion County, Ind. The county prosecutor's office there has set up a program for fathers who are more than $500 behind in their child-support obligations. Fathers who appear unemployed before the court receive an assessment to determine what type of services will help get them jobs. Deputy prosecutors can recommend to the court that fathers be ordered to participate in one of the program's three components: direct job referral, indirect job referrals or community service.
                               The fourth barrier identified in the Urban Institute's study was that child support and welfare policies were not designed to assist noncustodial fathers in their efforts to find work in order to pay child support. The Clinton/Gore administration's fiscal 2001 budget also proposes $255 million for the first year of a new "Fathers Work/Families Win" initiative to help low-income, noncustodial parents and low-income working families work and support their children. The administration's proposal includes $125 million to help some 40,000 low-income noncustodial parents work, pay child support and reconnect with their children. Another $130 million would go for grants to help hard-pressed working families retain jobs and upgrade skills and get connected to critical work supports, such as child care, child support, health care, food stamps, housing and transportation.
                               Lastly, the fifth barrier identified within the child-support system that discouraged father involvement was the finding that child-support programs tended to be silent regarding noncustodial father involvement beyond financial obligations, ignoring such issues as visitation and custody. I would point out that under welfare reform, Congress has authorized $10 million in access and visitation grants to state child-support programs so that they could augment or introduce programs that make it easier for noncustodial parents to see their children. Every state applied for and received these grants. In fiscal 1999, the minimum allotment per state was $100,000. Each state has flexibility in how it designs and operates these programs and can use these funds to provide such services as voluntary or mandatory mediation, counseling, education, development of parenting plans, visitation enforcement (including monitoring, supervision and neutral drop-off and pick-up) and development of guidelines for visitation and alternative-custody arrangement. There is a definite linkage between access to one's child and payment of child support. A report produced by the Census Bureau in 1995 revealed that child-support compliance was 85 percent in joint-custody cases, 79 percent where access to the child was protected by a visitation order and only 56 percent where neither joint custody nor visitation was protected.
                               After examining these barriers can we claim perfection in terms of fathers getting a fair shake in the child-support system? No, not entirely. Progress? Definitely yes, and getting fairer!
                               As president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, the nonprofit, professional organization representing the child-support community, I have traveled across the country this year and visited many child-support programs in many states. It has been my pleasure to witness, support and advocate in favor of the growing movement toward establishing partnerships between child-support enforcement agencies and community-based organizations to address the needs of fathers. Wherever I am, I continue to make the case that working with fathers, particularly low-income fathers, should be an ongoing part of child support's core mission. My best argument for the child-support system's commitment to working with fathers is that it's a win-win situation for the children and both parents. Children need two parents whether or not those parents live together! Our first guiding principle is that children deserve and need emotional and financial support from both mother and father. Another is that fathers have value to children that goes beyond a dollar amount. Above all, I believe that the child-support program must incorporate what I call the four F's: firmness, fairness, father-friendliness and family focus.
                               
                               Durham-McLoud is the president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association in Washington and has directed a state-run child-support program. 
                                
    
             

             
Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc.
            Web site developed by Griffin Strategy Group