Center for American Progress: Parental Access and Visitation Program ‘Underfunded, Needs to Change’

Not long ago, I posted a piece about Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s touting of grants intended to promote access to children by non-custodial parents.  The money came from a federal program called the Access and Visitation program that’s funded as part of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).  Abbott was crowing about the $500,000 Texas had received to promote access and visitation and I pointed out that the state spends over $250 million on child support enforcement.  I added that the money was being distributed to state agencies and nonprofit organizations that don’t exclusively provide access and visitation services.  Much of what they do is child support enforcement, so even the meager funds provided for “access and visitation” actually go in part to other things.

This white paper by the Center for American Progress shows that none of the problems I identified in the Texas situation is in any way unique to the Lone Star State.  They’re true nationwide.  (Go to page 11 of the paper to begin reading about overhauling the AV program.)

Mainly, the federal access and visitation program is ridiculously underfunded.  Established in 1997, it originally was budgeted $10 million per year.  Since then, its funding level hasn’t changed one penny.  That’s right, the federal government’s entire effort to promote access and visitation by non-custodial parents receives $10 million.  As the CAP’s piece aptly states,

Yet this program has largely remained undefined and underfunded, and resembles a neglected demonstration project rather than a national imperative. This needs to change.

That $10 million is compared to the federal government’s support for child support enforcement which weighs in at $3.8 billion per year, or 380 times it’s support for access and visitation.  As I said in my piece on the Texas program, that funding discrepancy accurately reflects policy priorities.  To state and federal governments as to family courts, dads are walking wallets; their job is to pay.  If they don’t, woe betide them; if they do, we’d prefer that they stay out of sight and shut up.

And that of course is precisely what the lack of money for access and visitation reflects.  It says loudly and clearly that we don’t want dads making waves; we don’t want fathers actually asserting the rights that those pieces of paper called ‘custody orders of family courts’ supposedly confer on them.  So we’ll erect as many barriers to the exercise of those “rights” as possible.  For poor fathers, that means less than the bare minimum of effective services to allow them to see their kids or their kids to see them.  As usual, if the mother approves access, then all is well, but if she chooses to obstruct it, then there’s little courts will do to support him.

Indeed, the CAP paper tells us that in many states, fathers seeking access have to file entirely new petitions to even begin the process of trying to enforce their visitation orders.  The piece rightly says that that just plain doesn’t make sense.  It’s a gratuitous additional obstacle between fathers and their children.  The simple fact is that family courts have continuing jurisdiction of their divorce cases after the final decree is issued.  That means that if child support isn’t paid, the recipient doesn’t have to file a new lawsuit to address the issue.  Not so the non-custodial dad. 

Since what’s really close to the hearts of policymakers is child support, you might think they’d notice the close connection between allowance of visitation and payment of support, but they don’t.  The simple fact is that dads who get to see their kids are much more likely to pay in full and on time than are those who don’t.  We’ve known this for many years and the CAP piece dutifully recites it, but why do something that makes sense?

The white paper makes numerous recommendations for change including increased funding (President Obama recommended an increase of $32 million over five years; remember, this is the guy who never misses an opportunity to bash irresponsible fathers.).  It calls for easier procedures, mediation, greater access to information, etc.  All of those are fine and necessary. 

But strangely enough, it nowhere demands that courts actually enforce visitation orders.  It’s a curious omission.  I’ve said this before about mediation of divorce and custody cases: mediation is no better than the parties’ underlying rights.  If one party knows she’s going to get primary custody and the judge will order every other weekend and Wednesday night visitation, what is it about mediation that encourages her to opt for anything less? 

The same is true of access and visitation enforcement.  If all parties know that she can obstuct visitation and pay no price for doing so, what is it about mediating the matter that’s going to cause her to change her ways?  To ask the question is to answer it. 

You can provide information, streamline procedures, lower filing fees, provide mediation services or turn handstands in the public square.  But if courts still refuse to sanction custodial parents for interfering with visitation, the situation will not improve.  Children will still miss out on their “other” parent and fathers will still draw the obvious conclusion that the system doesn’t give a tinker’s ‘damn’ about them as parents. 

Somewhere someone apparently thinks that’s a good prescription for what ails families in the United States.  I wonder who that is.

Thanks to Jose for the heads-up.

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