April 23, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
And it’s a twofer! The New York Times ran two pieces in the same day on child support, both of them fact-based and sympathetic to fathers. As I asked yesterday, “will wonders never cease?”
Whereas the article I discussed yesterday, “Skip Child Support, Lose Job, Go to Jail, Repeat” dealt with the big picture, the data on child support and the policies that are so self-defeating and ignorant of the realities non-custodial fathers face, this one is the “micro” picture — one woman’s decision to forego almost $40,000 in indebtedness from her ex-husband (New York Times, 4/19/15).
Earlier this year, I spent three hours sitting on a hard, wooden bench in the Queens County Family Court, waiting for a judge to approve my petition to forgive $38,750 in child support arrears from my ex-husband.
The judge said, “Well this is a rare one,” then asked me several times if I was aware of what I was doing and if I had received legal counsel. When I told my single mom friends, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of treason. “Child support is all we have!” one friend exclaimed.
Ah, telling words. “Treason.” If forgiving her ex’s child support debt is “treason,” the writer, Kimberly Seals Allers must be perceived by her friends to be on one “side” and her ex on the other, the “enemy’s.” Indeed, that word alone may speak volumes about the true nature of the child support system. If fathers and mothers are enemies, then much of that system is instantly explained. That every father who can’t pay is immediately labeled a deadbeat, irrespective of his circumstances, love for his kids, etc., may be explained by our assumption that he’s the mother’s enemy. She wears the white hat, he the black. Simple.
“Child support is all we have!” Really? Does that mean that none of Allers’ friends work for a living? Or does it mean it’s all they have to hold over their exes? Or both. Why are her friends not contributing to their children’s financial well-being? Alternatively, why are they using their exes’ obligation as a way to make them suffer?
Allers asks the obvious question, “Is it?” That is, is child support “all we have?” Her answer, to her credit, is a resounding “no!”
This was not a decision for divorce lawyers or court clerks. Or the unofficial single moms club, for that matter. This was about redefining what child support really is, for our family — and it’s a redefinition that other families should consider.
We have too often reduced nonresidential fathers to being weighed and judged by a financial transaction. If you don’t pay, you’re a “dead beat.” End of one story, beginning of a new one, one that can mean suspended drivers’ licenses and professional licenses, seized bank deposits and tax refunds, and the very real risk of jail time…
It can also mean some mothers blocking access to children (called “pay per view”) and children becoming pawns in a game that puts their development and psychological well-being on the line.
That last puts the matter backwards. Yes, some fathers refuse to pay and mothers retaliate by restricting access. Usually it’s the other way around. It’s one of the major legitimate gripes by fathers that no one enforces their rights of access to their kids, but let them miss a payment or two and the weight of the state comes down on them. But Allers’ heart is in the right place, so I won’t kvetch.
What she’s so, so right about is that her decision was not a matter for lawyers or the adversarial process. That’s what “treason” is all about — taking sides and fighting. She understands that it’s her family, her kids certainly, but her ex as well that need to live with each other, not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. She knows that she can make her situation as bitter, hateful and unpalatable as she wants. She can also make it as amicable as possible. For everyone’s good, she chose the latter.
Why? Why wave good bye to a hefty chunk of money? Only the best reason in the world — her children’s welfare.
For many, many reasons, I was determined to ensure that our family story did not include any version of that too-common series of events. Studies prove that school-age children of involved fathers have better academic success, higher grade point averages and go on to have higher levels of economic and educational achievement. We focus on money, when “child support” also means emotional support, academic support and the supportive power of a male influence in a child’s life. Negating that value is dangerous to our children. Regardless of what I think of him, my children love their father and doing my part to keep that feeling alive is priceless to me…
But last June, my daughter graduated from middle school. She wanted nothing more than for her father, who has moved back to his native England, to attend her graduation. (Our children spend 6 weeks there with him every summer.) He could not travel to the United States to attend, he and his new wife said, because of his child support arrears and subsequent arrest warrants.
My daughter was beyond disappointed that he wasn’t there. I would have paid the $38,000 myself if I could to remove that look from her face. What I could do was to be sure it didn’t happen again, and take the words “arrest warrant” out of the language my children associate with their father. I don’t want the father of my children to be criminalized or to live in fear of prison. I don’t want the letters from Child Support Enforcement coming to my home nor the pamphlets marketing legal services to help me get my owed child support. This is dangerous subliminal messaging for my daughter and my son.
Wise woman. She knows, against everything family courts and the child support system teach, that maintaining her kids’ relationship with — and good opinion of — their father is more valuable than all the money in the world. She understands that, whatever courts and the OCSE may believe about fathers, children don’t see their dad as nothing more than a source of cash.
My children have (almost) always wanted to see their father. Whether he paid or not did not really matter to them.
Not only that, but Allers has the good sense and decency to try on dad’s shoes and see how they fit.
As mothers we would never want our value to be trivialized to a dollar amount. But fathers are often reduced to being an accessory parent — nice to have around, but not essential as long as a good mother stands in.
Yes, just how would that feel? The shoe pinches just a bit, doesn’t it? The humiliation of going from dedicated, loving father, who’s doing everything he can for his kids, to being an un-person in their lives, a man whose only importance is the money he sends: does that sound like a compliment? Does it feel like respect? For the most part, there’s not a mother alive who’d opt for that role. So why do we believe fathers should take it?
Now, there are those who will point out that Allers, unlike many, many divorced mothers, had the financial wherewithal to turn her back on the $38,750 her ex owed her. She can afford the sentiments she espouses. That’s true enough. But forgoing child support arrears is just what Allers did. Why she did it is her message and the one everyone who reads her piece should take away.
She refused to make her ex a man wanted by the law not because the money wouldn’t have been nice, but because her children’s well-being is nicer. The kids obviously don’t need the money and neither does she. But what they do need is the unencumbered love of their father that he’s always given in every way he can. Divorced or not, Allers, her ex and their kids are still a family and always will be. She could have made that bad, could have made him her enemy. Plenty of parents do that every day.
But she’s wise enough to see what really gives happiness to her and her children and it’s not maintaining a legal vendetta against the father of her children. She’s also wise enough to know what kind of example she’s setting for her girls, and that kindness and generosity trump bitterness and anger every time, even though lawyers, courts and the child support system disagree.
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