Helen Kellner: Child Support System Creates Deadbeats

March 18th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
It’s always good to read an article that makes sense and particularly so when that article appears in the Huffington Post, since it’s so rare.  But here’s one such article (Huffington Post, 3/15/13).

It’s by Helen Kellner and it raises some issues and provides a perspective that are new to me.  So for me, it’s a win-win.

Kellner, like the rest of the world, is regularly treated to headlines haranguing readers about the scourge of “deadbeat parents” which as all know, is the newly-PC term for deadbeat dads.  Kellner doesn’t like either term, but it’s not because of the misandry inherent in the latter or the falsely judgmental nature of both, although neither sits well with her.  No, for her it’s something different and to combat the deadbeat parent phenomenon, she proposes an intriguing response.

Upon reading the caption “No. 1 deadbeat…”, the public reacted with the same judgment: “typical.”  And from there, the floodgates opened. On social media sites, single-parent moms are bemoaning their own child-support sagas. They are commiserating with others who are dealing with deadbeats and they are making calls to their exes (or lawyers) with fresh “you’d better, or else” leverage. You think I exaggerate? Divorce can be a dark place, and child-support is the hotspot.

She then tears the scab off a real sore spot.

Divorce attorneys are familiar with the child-support focus of their clients. “It’s the elephant in the room”, says one Palm Springs attorney who is a Certified Family Law Specialist.  The custodial parent facing divorce wants to know “how much?” regarding child-support monies that can be gained from the ex. This question is matched by the non-custodial parent’s inquiry of “how often?” regarding visitation with the child. The system and the mindset are working in tandem: child-support equals visitation, visitation equals child-support. No support? No visitation.

And this is done for the children?

OK, she’s wrong about the no support/no visitation thing.  As any divorce lawyer will tell you, the two are independent.  Don’t pay support, you still have visitation rights although how you exercise those from jail, I’m not sure.  And if Dad pays everything he owes, Mom can still deny him access to the child.  She’s not supposed to do that, but it happens countless times every single day with nary a raised eyebrow from the courts.

Still, Kellner has hit on something important and that’s rarely, if ever, mentioned in the debate about shared parenting.  One of the standard dodges of the anti-dad crowd is their claim that fathers want equal rights to care for and love their children only to reduce the amount of child support they owe.  Much social science rebuts that claim, but when you’ve got nothing to say in a debate, all you can do is make stuff up.  So that’s what they do.  What they don’t do is turn the coin over and look at the other side.  There you’ll find the concept that some mothers doggedly oppose equal custody because they’d get less money in child support if that were the rule.  The anti-dad folks never mention that.

Which brings us to Kellner’s real objective which is to try to get people to opt out of the state-enforced child support system altogether.

As I looked into my child’s future — past the divorce — my heart made a pact with her:  “I will never, ever put you in a position where you’ll see a picture of your dad on the front-page news with a caption that reads “Deadbeat”. Your father’s driver’s and professional licenses will never be confiscated as a consequence of him not paying court-ordered child support. You, my sweet child, will never go to bed knowing your father sleeps in jail due to his lack of paying. Regardless of his financial support, I will encourage you to know his love — without my judgment of it.” This was my vow, even as I faced a financially uncertain future.

To which I can only respond, “how smart, how thoughtful, how loving.”  Here’s a woman who doesn’t see a secure financial future, but she knows enough about the father of her daughter to understand that he’ll do the best he can.  She knows enough about the courts and the child enforcement bureaucracy to understand that they don’t give a tinker’s ‘damn’ about her child.  In her mind, the involvement of the state in parenting is a decision that entails more risk than reward.  And above all, she knows enough about children to understand that seeing their father in jail because of them is deeply injurious to everything they are.

And with that conviction, I did not pursue court-ordered child support. To those who say about Deadbeats, “It is their choice not to pay. It is their undoing that brings on the consequences,” I say “No.”  In inviting court-ordered support, you invite in the consequences — both the intended (support payments) and the unintended (deadbeat). No amount of money gained is worth the gamble of a child experiencing their parent alienated or in jail as a result of non-compliance.  A child doesn’t understand court orders, procedures, and regulations. But if a child’s parent is in jail for arrears, they do know this: “If I didn’t exist, my parent wouldn’t be in jail.” Is your heart strong enough to fully take that in without your mind jumping to “yeah, but…”?

Strong words and true ones.  The system of state-enforced child support creates deadbeat parents in more ways than Kellner discusses.  The interest and fees tacked on to every arrearage are a major part of the “deadbeat parent system” the law nourishes and protects.

Yes, there are parents who need the support and parents who wouldn’t pay if you pointed a gun at them.  Unfortunately, those are the ones around whom the system was built.  The genesis of the current system was the single notion that fathers don’t like their kids and will do anything to avoid supporting them.  That’s utterly at odds with the truth and Kellner knows it.  Too bad policy makers don’t.  Her solution is for parents to support their kids as best they can and let it go at that.

Now, unspoken in her plan is the fact that, if you do it her way, custodial parents have to be nice to non-custodial ones.  Many  years ago, Sanford Braver and colleagues discovered that the primary problem fathers have with paying their exes is the obstacles placed by the moms between fathers and their children.  The simple fact is that fathers love their kids and want to do what’s best for them.  If moms cooperate about his access, he’ll cooperate about support.

It’s a well-known fact that the entire child support system denies.  That system’s “you’d better, or else” approach makes child care a matter for criminal courts instead of an agreement between the two people in the world who love the child the most.

Good for Kellner.  She didn’t ask for a child support order.  She’s relying on her ex to do the right thing.  I hope he realizes what a gem his child’s mother is.

Meanwhile, Kellner thinks the child support system could use a change.

Children of divorce are holding up a sign: It’s time for a new divorce. They are wanting a divorce process and solutions that address their needs — that address their heart.  They know that they can be loved, nurtured, and thrive through divorce.

When we assert that “It’s best for the child,” it’s time we do it with a heart that perceives the consequences.

It’s time we think anew.

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