Attorney: Child Support Enforcement ‘Quick and Severe;’ Visitation Enforcement, Not so Much

man repairing girl bike smallMay 6, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Here’s a fine article by attorney Joseph Cordell who’s long been a staunch advocate for fathers in family courts (Huffington Post, 5/3/13). There are plenty of attorneys who advertise their support for fathers, but many of those are just hustling an income on the pretense that they fight extra hard for dads. Cordell actually does. His article is about his experiences with family courts and the shocking contrast between child support enforcement and enforcement of visitation. Put simply, nothing demonstrates the anti-father/pro-mother bias of the child custody system like that contrast.

Cordell makes an important point that had never occurred to me.

You’ll read about it often — the creative methods judges and other officials use to shame people who owe child support.

There is the man ordered not to procreate. The guy who must tell any female he meets that he owes child support. The dads forced to display signs proclaiming themselves “deadbeats.”

Much is made of the offensive moniker “deadbeat dads” and the histrionic punishments doled out by zealous judges.

Yep, we’ve all seen those stories. So when was the last time you read one about a judge ordering a mother to walk around in front of the courthouse wearing a sandwich board reading “I’m an alienating mother. I keep my son from his father.” No, I can’t remember one of those. Has it ever happened? Has any judge ever exercised his/her famous imagination for humiliating fathers on the other sex? I haven’t seen it.

And of course there’s a reason for that: the legal system doesn’t much care about kids seeing their dads. Most obviously, the typical visitation order has little Andy or Jenny spending about four nights a month with Dad. That’s about 13% of the time, but, in the event, even that often turns out to be too much not only for Mom but for the court. We know that because, when she decides to absent herself and the child from the pick-up location several weeks in a row and Dad goes to court to enforce his rights, typically, not much happens. Usually, it takes Dad several tries before the court will lift a finger against the alienating mother, if then.

But that’s hardly the only obstacle between him and his child. Cordell aptly compares the astonishing differences between child support enforcement and visitation “enforcement” that he sees every day in his law practice.

What happens to a father who is unable to maintain his child support payments, even after only a few months of failing to pay? Enforcement is swift, heavy-handed, and can be brought about privately, by hiring private counsel, or by utilizing a local child support enforcement office.

Sometimes the individual owed child support will not have to ask for assistance. If the offender has met certain thresholds for noncompliance, such as a failure to pay for three consecutive months, the enforcement office may step in and seek to enforce the child support order without prompting from the other party.

Depending on the jurisdiction, several penalties may be carried out administratively or “extra-judicially” without the need for judicial intervention or a hearing in court.

The offending individual may receive notice that their driver’s license is being suspended, their passport is being confiscated, their vehicle is being repossessed, a lien has been placed on their property, or their federal tax return will be intercepted.

Jail time, while rare, is still a real and unnerving possibility for many fathers.

When dealing with custodial interference, there are far fewer options for enforcement.

Consider what happens when an ex-spouse ignores the court-ordered parenting time scheduled and keeps the children from the other parent.

The father goes to pick the kids up, but the ex-wife won’t let them leave the house. The dad is supposed to have Father’s Day with the kids this year, but she took them to see their grandfather.

The initial reaction is to call the police. Good luck with that. Typically, law enforcement will not help enforce visitation. Rather than request assistance from a local authority or wait for an agency to step in, visitation is treated as a civil matter.

Therefore, an individual must either choose to a family law attorney or attempt to maneuver the legal system on their own.

Court-appointed attorneys for proceedings to enforce visitation are rare. Further, fewer legal aid resources are offering assistance when it comes to cases involving visitation and custody matters.

Thus, enforcement becomes a matter of the ability of a party to afford representation to enforce the order, styled either as a motion for contempt or motion to modify.

If an individual is not comfortable or savvy enough to file for enforcement on their own and cannot afford to hire counsel, then they typically are without means to enforce the visitation order.

To be blunt, the system values monetary support – however the mother may choose to spend it – over the emotional love and care fathers provide. And nothing proves that quite like a little item Cordell neglects to mention – the vast difference between the amount of money budgeted by the U.S. government for child support enforcement versus what it spends to enforce visitation. The U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement budgets some $5 billion annually to help states get non-custodial parents to pay what they owe. It budgets a mere $10 million for visitation enforcement. That’s a 500:1 ratio. What could be clearer?

Into the bargain, much of that $5 billion goes to pay state-employed attorneys to represent mothers seeking to enforce child support orders. In other words, if you’re one of those, you don’t need to hire a lawyer to represent you; the state’s already done that and they’re sitting there waiting for your call. But if Dad wants to see his child, he has to figure out the court system for himself, pay the filing fees and convince a judge to let him see his child. Either that or he has to hire a lawyer to do the job. Many, many fathers can do neither. The regulations governing the expenditure of the meager funds budgeted for visitation enforcement explicit prohibit their use to pay attorneys. Again, could the bias be any clearer?

In short, the system of divorce and custody is perfectly content for children to not see their fathers after their parents split up. More accurately, it’s content to let Mom decide. If she allows little Andy or Jenny to see their father, that’s OK. But if she doesn’t, that’s OK too. As far as the system goes, it’s her call. Fathers’ rights, mothers’ choice. Where have we seen that before? We’ve seen it in virtually every aspect of law relating to parents and children, that’s where.

The hypocrisy becomes even more pronounced when we recall that non-custodial parents with unimpeded access to their children are far more likely to pay what they owe than are the other kind. That fact is so well known that the OCSE and many state agencies involved in child support enforcement frankly acknowledge it. Amazingly, having done so, they proceed to make little-to-no effort to enforce visitation, the very thing that would enhance their efforts at increasing child support payments.

There’s a simple solution; make enough money available for enforcing visitation to motivate state officials to do so. It’s clear enough that the draconian measures adopted by states to enforce child support payment are motivated primarily by federal money. The more they spend to enforce payment, the more states receive from the feds. Unsurprisingly, they go to great lengths to make sure fathers don’t fall behind and to punish them severely if they do. So what would happen if states got paid by the federal government for every Motion to Support Visitation they granted? Say, I think I know the answer to that one.

But of course that doesn’t happen because policy makers at the national and state levels believe fathers are expendable. Kids need his money, so their thinking goes, but not his presence, caring, love, protection or parenting. Look at the facts of how we do divorce and custody and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion.

Joseph Cordell knows.

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