Day in court no solace for deadbeat dad

March 10, 1995|By Robin Miller

ON FEB. 28, I went to court in my chronic battle to get the state to stop threatening me with jail for the crime of not earning as much money as my ex-wife thinks I should.

On the advice of "my" attorney, a young lady from the Public Defender's Office, I pleaded guilty to failure to pay child support as ordered and paid $1,520 to my ex-wife (money borrowed from a friend) to stay out of jail. I must come up with another $1,000 by the end of April -- and pay $130 per week in child support for the next three years even if I become ill or can't work for other reasons, or my probation will be revoked and I will go to jail for three years.

I am now a convicted criminal out on probation. And somewhat confused. As far as I could tell, "my" lawyer was so firmly in my ex-wife's corner that she should have been working for the prosecution.

But I'm not complaining. God and the government are on the side of a woman who complains about how she is treated in child support matters, while a man who complains about a child support judgment is a whiner trying to unfairly portray himself as a victim.

I heard as much from "my" attorney, who told me that I should take a second job, a third job, panhandle and/or become a criminal if that's what it takes to satisfy my ex-wife and the state.

Two days after my trial I was in New York City as a panelist on a talk show on the Newstalk cable TV network. The subject: child support.

Other panelists were: two lawyers (one male and one female), a woman who wasn't collecting child support from her ex-husband and a psychologist who said money battles -- and lawyers -- were bad for children.

To say the audience was stacked against fathers would put it mildly. Some 32 of the 50 people there were members of a welfare mothers' group that had been bused to the studio. All of the women had husbands (or boyfriends) who were not paying child support.

On TV, as in real life, the two lawyers yelled at each other. It was an effort for the rest of us to get in our few words. The male lawyer talked of how the child support system was unfair to men. The female lawyer talked of how it was unfair to women.

Numbers were disputed. Hands waved in the air. I said my little bit. The lawyers tore into each other. Audience members tore into me -- and into the lawyers. I laughed through most of the program. After being shredded in court by a combination of my ex-wife, a prosecutor, a judge and "my" attorney, what did I have to fear from a talk show?

I like to believe that reasonable people can sit down and work things out -- even if they don't like each other. What I saw in my court and TV appearances is forcing me to rethink this belief.

The talk show audience, panelists and even moderator Vladimir Pozner seemed more interested in arguing than in finding humane ways to improve a child support collection system that serves no one well.

Prosecutors in child support cases turn men and women against each other so irreparably that it appears the only objective is to fill jail cells, not collect money for the children.

The female lawyer on the talk show seemed adamant in her belief that all men are out to wrong women. Listening to her, I felt that I deserved to be in jail simply for being male, whether I owed child support or not.

Several men's rights activists I have met claim that radical feminists like the talk show lawyer intensify the polarization of the sexes, which helps undermine child support collection efforts. "It's their revenge for us knocking down the Equal Rights Amendment," one men's activist said.

Roger, who runs a telephone help line for fathers with child support and custody problems, told me: "The man-haters are using child support as a way to get back at men. You need to commit yourself to the men's movement and help us fight them. The women's movement is evil. We shouldn't let it take over the country." Then Roger launched into a tirade about our freedom to bear arms and I stopped listening.

The men's rights activists I have met seem to be as far out on the lunatic fringe as the most vociferous feminists. But the more I deal with child support court, the more appealing the men's activists' pitch becomes.

At the same time, I can understand the female urge to demonize deadbeat dads and blame us for everything from the federal deficit to civilian slaughter in Bosnia.

Our adversarial, court-based system of collecting child support creates hate and misunderstanding. A child support collection system based on mediation and counseling would do just the opposite. But no sane politician is going to advocate anything this sensible, because in today's America, anger always seems to bring in more votes -- and higher TV talk show ratings -- than common sense.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore taxi driver.

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