Madison, WI–If it’s not it should be.
Read this article out of Madison, Wisconsin (Wisconsin State Journal, 11/06/07). It’s a small window on some of the many issues surrounding the child support system. The twist here is that the judge, James Martin, saw what was going on and called the prosecutor, Paul Humphrey, on it. The Wisconsin State Journal looks like it’s done a whole series on him.
First, Anthony Williams is a typical man who fell behind on child support payments. As Sanford Braver’s landmark book Divorced Dads (a must read for anyone interested in divorce and child support) makes clear, the vast majority of non-custodial fathers who fail to make support payments do so because of either a financial or medical crisis in their lives. In this case it was the latter. Williams incurred thousands of dollars in medical bills for his step-daughter which forced him into bankruptcy.
Second, in the best of times Williams wasn’t well-to-do. Humphrey claimed that, because Williams was an electrician making union wages of “as much as $20/hour” that made him a fair target. But if he earned $20/hour, forty hours/week, 50 weeks/year, that’s $40k – not exactly the lap of luxury. But he didn’t make nearly that much. Twenty dollars/hour was the top of the mark for him, not the average. And as anyone knows who works out of a union hall, some days you get work and some days you don’t. You almost never work 2,000 hours/year.
Third, we have the bullying District Attorney. These guys have read the papers and know there’s no easier target than a “deadbeat dad.” Publicly they’re pariahs and privately they’re too poor to put up a decent fight in court. In short, they’re a prosecutor’s dream defendant.
So he Nifonged the defendant, convicting him of seven felonies. Try to get a job now, Mr. Williams! That’ll sure help your kids.
At least Judge Martin knew what was going on. He told Humphrey and the child support agent the truth – that they had tried to “destroy” Williams “just because you could.” By the time the case went to trial, Williams had caught up with his payments, but they prosecuted him on seven felony charges anyway. The judge sentenced him to $100 fine and 8 months probation – a slap on the wrist.
One thing that’s missing from the child support system is an easy, quick way to get payments adjusted. The fact is that a non-custodial parent who loses a job or incurs major medical expenses is not likely to have the money to hire an attorney, go to court and try to amend the child support order. So the orders remain the same but with no ability to comply. That results in increasing arrearages and interest.
But there’s no reason to have a full-blown hearing with attorneys. A court system that cared about the reality of child-support obligors’ lives would allow them to call the court, speak to a clerk who would tell them what they needed to bring to court to show their changed circumstances. A letter from an employer or doctor, pay stubs, medical bills, etc. should suffice to change the order to reflect the parent’s real-world situation.
If that had been in place in Williams’ case, he would be free to work as an electrician and support his kids. As it is, he’s a felon – forever – with drastically reduced wage-earning ability. And who benefits from that besides a prosecutor who likes to beat up on the little people of the world? To, you know, Nifong them.