Child support reality

Punishing parents with a 'pay up or else' approach can hurt the children the system is supposed to help

November 04, 2008|By Daniel L. Hatcher

The reality facing families in the child support system is far from simple. Demanding, as a recent Baltimore Sun editorial did, that parents "pay up or else" - and suggesting that the main thing the Child Support Enforcement Administration needs to do is use available tools and get tougher on "deadbeats" - could harm the very children the child support system is supposed to serve.

It's important to remember that half of all unpaid child support is not even owed to children. When a struggling custodial mother applies for welfare cash assistance, the law requires her to establish a child support obligation against the father and simultaneously assign the resulting child support payments to the government. As a result, half of the $105 billion in national child support debt is owed to the government rather than to children. Although recent federal legislation encourages states to "pass through" such government-owed child support back to the children, Maryland has not yet chosen this option.

Another problem is the repeated use of the term "deadbeat." The bulk of Maryland's $1.5 billion in unpaid child support is owed by parents who are not deadbeats - they're dead broke. Almost two-thirds of parents responsible for unpaid child support debt have annual incomes of less than $10,000. And almost 70 percent of the total unpaid child support debt has accumulated from cases of current and former welfare families. The reality is that when a poor mother faces the difficult choice of applying for welfare assistance, the father is often also poor.

A 2002 report from Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement cautioned that "we need to steer clear of 'simple answers' and opt instead for more 'mature answers,'" recognizing that blind enforcement can cause harm. Low-income fathers facing unrealistic child-support demands, the loss of driver's licenses and garnishment of 65 percent of their net wages may be forced into the underground economy. Overly aggressive child support enforcement may discourage a father's interaction with his children and cause increasing family conflict. Studies show that young low-income parents in "fragile families" have the potential for healthy relationships, and possibly even marriage. But when the mothers are forced to sue the fathers - often repeatedly - for money not even owed to the children, and the arsenal of enforcement tools is then unleashed, the fragile relationships can be destroyed.

To be sure, when child support is owed to the children and the obligation amount is reasonably set, effective enforcement is crucial to providing a much-needed financial resource to families. And, in fact, the child support agency's effectiveness has continued to increase in the face of dwindling agency budgets. From 2001 to 2005, the Maryland child support agency increased total child support distributions by almost 20 percent - all while the agency's full-time equivalent staff was cut by almost 10 percent. Continuing improvements in effectiveness are necessary, but if the agency is to do its job well, the state must address the inadequacy of its funding and staffing levels.

An appropriate focus on effectiveness must not give way to blind enforcement. The complexities of family circumstances must be considered, and enforcement decisions must be guided by the best interests of children. Then, when child support is collected, the money should be directed to help the children. In addition to the need for "pass through" legislation, the state should better utilize the Child Support Payment Incentive Program enacted last year, which encourages payment of child support owed to children by forgiving portions of past-due child support owed to the government. The "pay up or else" approach, despite its good intentions, misses the mark. The point of child support is not to punish parents but to help children and strengthen families.

Daniel L. Hatcher, an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore, is author of an article in the Wake Forest Law Review titled "Child Support Harming Children: Subordinating the Best Interests of Children to the Fiscal Interests of the State." His e-mail is dhatcher@ubalt.edu.

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