Deadbeat dad in black and white

March 31, 1995|By Robin Miller

WE RECENTLY learned that the state income tax return that my wife Debbie was expecting won't be coming. That $814 check that was owed to her (we filed jointly, but only she was due a refund) has been sent to my ex-wife to cover back child support payments that I owe.

This is part of the state's effort to crack down on deadbeat dads. Politicians from Bill Clinton on down all agree that such measures are necessary to get deadbeat dads to pay up. But the politicians seem to have forgotten the rights of many innocent people, including Debbie.

Now Debbie will probably have to take time off work to appeal to the state to get her money back. (Will she receive interest on the money while the state decides whether she is indeed due a refund?)

This sort of bureaucratic wrangle is all too familiar to Debbie now; it's part of the wages of being a spouse of a deadbeat dad.

Debbie has had to put up with calls from collection agents hired by the state to collect child support that I do not even owe. (An amount that I had owed in arrears was at one time forgiven by the court, but that didn't stop the collectors from constantly pestering me.) She has seen the dunning letters I get over sums that I am already paying.

She observed me borrow $1,000 last month to stay out of jail, and has watched a judge order me to come up with another $1,000 by April 24, even though that judge knew there was no way I could earn that much money by then.

Debbie shakes her head in wonder at all of this action against me because she knows that I am paying what the state demands.

Ironically, Debbie herself is owed more than $18,000 in back child support from her ex-husband that the state apparently hasn't bothered to collect.

Debbie's ex-husband helped support her and their son, Dominique, now 13, for less than a year before leaving them. He has made only a few child support payments over the past 12 years.

Yet, the state has never claimed Dominique's father's income tax refund for Debbie. And he has never been threatened with jail and is not dunned by collection agencies.

Debbie blames racism in the child support bureaucracy for the difference in the way the two cases are handled.

"Face it," Debbie said. "She's [my ex-wife] white and I'm black. They'll do everything for her and nothing for me because of that."

Debbie also believes extra effort is being put into my case because I am a white man who chose to marry a black woman.

Racism aside, taking an income tax refund from one mother and giving it to another in the same situation is unfair. So is pursuing one absent father while letting another one go about his merry way.

The women -- and children -- caught in the middle of all of this wrangling are hurt worst of all. They can see how much the current child support system hurts everyone caught in it, and how little good it does for anyone besides the lawyers.

For example, Dominique has decided not to have children when he becomes an adult; that's a result of seeing how the state has treated me for falling behind in child support payments.

Debbie now talks about suing the state for its attempts to put me in jail and for taking her income tax refund. She also wants to sue for the state's failure to go after her ex-husband with the same vigor it has pursued me.

An unfair system invariably leads to lawsuits. The child support system we have now is so unfair that it may soon end up spending more resources defending its actions in court than actually doing its job.

With politicians talking about giving child support bureaucrats even more collection tools than they already have -- such as the ability to suspend drivers and professional licenses of deadbeat dads -- a rash of civil suits against the child support system is inevitable.

The only way to avoid such lawsuits is to reform the child support system and make sure it treats all parties affected by it in a fair and even-handed manner before we give it more power.

If we don't, everyone involved in the child support business -- including the lawyers -- will spend so much time in court that none of us will have any time left for the children.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore taxi driver.

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