Here’s an interesting development. It’s a link to a bill that’s before the Illinois Senate, having passed the House by a vote of 78-36.
The bill is entitled the Steven Watkins Memorial Act. I’ve written before about Steven Watkins. He was an Illinois man who was shot to death as he arrived to pick up his daughter for his court-ordered visitation one day in 2008.
The shooter was his ex-wife’s mother. Last year she was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison. She was 75 years old at the time of sentencing.
Since then, the big news about the case has involved the efforts of Watkins’ parents to get a court to order visitation with their granddaughter. They’ve been successful at getting the order, but not the visitation. That’s because Watkins’ ex has fled the state for parts unknown. She is now under several indictment for violations of the visitation order.
So House Bill 1604 is an effort to put some teeth into visitation orders. Not coincidentally, it amends the state law providing for the suspension of the drivers’ license of parents who don’t pay child support. If the bill passes, Illinois parents who don’t comply with visitation orders can have their drivers license suspended until they come into compliance.
On the surface, the bill makes about as much sense as suspending the license of someone who doesn’t pay child support. The question arises, “how does drivers’ license suspension promote compliance?” The answer is that usually it doesn’t.
Still, you’ve got to like HB 1604. Countless advocates for parental equality in family courts have remarked on the fact that states use huge amounts of resources and the most draconian laws to force non-custodial parents to pay child support, but almost none to enforce visitation orders.
Not long ago I did this piece on Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s crowing about all his office was doing to enforce visitation orders. He was all puffed up about the state’s getting $500,000 in federal money to supposedly promote visitation enforcement in Texas counties with well over 5 million people.
Trifling as that sum is, it was directed at organizations whose missions are mainly the collection of child support, not enforcing child access. So in fact very little of the already paltry sum was going to promote fathers’ access to their children.
And, based on the AG’s own figures, I calculated that Texas spends at least $257 million per year on child support enforcement. Compare that with the $500,000 for visitation (even though it’s actually not that much) and you have a fair assessment of what value Texas places on each activity. The ratio’s about 500:1.
The law says the two are separate. Every divorce lawyer has explained to a client, “just because she doesn’t allow you to see the child doesn’t mean you can quit paying.” Legally, the same is true for the custodial parent; failure to pay doesn’t absolve her of allowing him to see the child.
But what’s true in law may not always be true in fact. Whether courts and lawyers like it or not, parents see a connection between child access and child support. For a dad, paying every month or two weeks is a lot easier if he sees little Andy or Jenny regularly and without complaint. For Mom, allowing visitation is less onerous if the check’s there on time every time.
And that’s not just anecdotal evidence or shoot-from-the-hip common sense; social science bears it out. Sanford Braver’s studies in the 90s showed that dads are more likely to pay fully and on time if they get to see their children.
So once again, there’s a real disconnect between the law and the way people actually behave. The law says visitation and child support have nothing to do with each other. The actual behavior of divorced parents says otherwise.
That’s why, to me, Illinois HB 1604 is interesting. On its face it doesn’t accomplish a lot, but what it suggests is important. Its clear subtext is that there’s a connection between visitation and support; that’s why it moves in the direction of treating them the same. Fail to pay, lose your license; interfere with visitation, lose your license.
If they care to notice, it’s also a clear rebuke to family court judges who, even though they’re equipped with the power to enforce their visitation orders, routinely fail to do so.
It’s one of the quiet scandals of family courts. It’s quiet because the press rarely notices it; it’s a scandal because it constitutes clear discrimination against non-custodial parents, about 84% of whom are fathers. And it’s no less a scandal because the failure to ensure healthy relationships with both parents post divorce is terribly hurtful to children.
Again, the same family courts that never cease intoning the mantra of the “best interests of the child” seem to have little or no information about the social science on what promotes child well-being.
So whatever the fate of Illinois HB 1604, it’s good to see legislators who are aware of the disgraceful failure of family courts to enforce fathers’ access to their kids post-divorce and are moving, even tentatively, to do something about it.
Thanks to Jim for the heads-up.