Center for American Progress: Support for Visitation ‘Must Be Drastically Expanded’

Reading this article is a bit like drinking a soda water; it’s good, but there’s not much substance (Center for American Progress, 6/17/11).

And that’s too bad because the writer, Joy Moses of the Center for American Progress, says a lot that’s right, but not forcefully enough for my taste.  I’d even say she’s not forceful enough to do the job she clearly knows needs doing.

As our nation celebrates the importance of fathers this weekend, it”s a good time to reflect on how we show them love in the policies we create. And there is no greater place to do that than in the federal government”s Child Support Enforcement program, which needs to make a 180-degree turn from unfairly persecuting our country”s poorest men to actually helping their families through:

Ending punishments for men who are too poor to pay;
Emphasizing employment assistance for those in need;
Greatly expanding current token efforts focused on visitation.

It’s noteworthy that her article was published a mere three days before the Supreme Court published its decision in Turner vs. Rogers holding that indigent parents owing child support aren’t necessarily entitled to an attorney even though the state seeks to incarcerate them.

My guess is that even if the justices had read her piece, they’d have decided Turner the same way.  Put simply, Moses has a clue about all the difficulties the poor face in the justice system; Steven Breyer and the rest of the majority do not.

Two of her major points are ones I’ve made before.  The first comes straight from the Office of Child Support Enforcement whose publication here says that state courts need to start issuing child support orders that fathers can actually pay.

Now, the sane among us would probably consider that nothing but the obvious.  Why issue an order that the non-custodial parent can’t pay?  What the OCSE document makes clear is that it happens all the time for whatever the reason.  The mere fact that the U.S. government would have to plaintively ask state judges to please issue child support orders that are within the fathers’ ability to pay says more than I ever could on the subject.

It’s the same publication that reported that 63% of non-custodial parents who are behind on their child support payments report earning $10,000 per year or less.  That makes them poor and it is the poor who are Moses’ concern.

In recent years, there has been a new focus on federally funded fatherhood programs that provide parenting support and, at times, employment help. Yet those efforts are dwarfed by the $5.8 billion spent on the Child Support Enforcement program, which reaches the parents of 17.5 million children and half of all poor children. This is the program most likely to be engaging with low-income fathers.

So, the federal government expends huge amounts of money to collect child support, mostly from the poor, but does comparatively little to help ensure that those fathers can get and keep paying work.  Moses, like so many others, sees the futility behind that approach.

The second thing I’ve discussed before that Moses touches on is visitation.

Visitation is also key because low-income parents are often being locked out of systems that allow them to establish visitation arrangements (historically, visitation has been a minor focus of the child support enforcement agencies). Federal efforts in this area must be drastically expanded.

That’s putting it mildly.  It wasn’t too long ago that I railed at Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott who had the gall to trumpet the fact that he was spending $500,000 on visitation enforcement in the state.  That compared with something like $270 million for child support enforcement.  I opined at the time that those figures accurately reflected the state’s priorities regarding support and visitation.

But I was wrong; it was worse than I thought.  When I checked the various agencies the visitation money was going to, I found that their priorities were first child support enforcement.  Some didn’t even mention enforcement of visitation.

So it’s good to see Moses calling for drastic expansion enforcement of visitation orders.  By now, plenty of people are aware of Sanford Braver’s work in the 1990s that found that mothers who don’t interfere with visitation are far more likely than those that do to get full on-time payment of support.

Of course with indigent fathers, non-interference with visitation won’t have that effect.  If you can’t pay you can’t pay, irrespective of what the mother does.  But for everyone else, visitation enforcement is one of the keys to child support enforcement.

But, just like the failure to spend on employment training for dads, the federal government fails to support visitation enforcement.  Both would lead to improvements in the thing that’s nearest and dearest to the federal heart – child support payments, but quixotically enough, the feds aren’t interested.

Needless to say, punishments for failure to pay only make paying that much harder.

The consequences can include imprisonment, loss of a driver”s license necessary to maintain employment, wage garnishment, and public humiliation as your photo may be published in newspapers and on television. In short, our federal child support enforcement policies can make being both poor and a father into the severest of punishments.

Child support enforcement efforts can punish the poor for being poor and, ironically, make it difficult for them to work and provide for their children.

Joy Moses gets it.  Sadly, people in a position to do something about the multitude of problems surrounding child support and visitation, people like the justices of the Supreme Court and the President of the United States, seem not to.  The former imagine that when the poor face jail they don’t need lawyers; the latter blames fathers for problems imposed on them by a judicial system that often seems bent on separating them from their children.

Thanks to Jose for the heads-up.

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