New York Times Forum: Child Support Penalties not Harsh Enough

April 26, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Friday’s piece about Colleen Eubanks’ mistaken claim that our system of enforcing child support is “fair” neglected to mention one of the very least fair things about it — its blatant sexism. As National Parents Organization Chairman Ned Holstein reported here, investigator Terry Brennan squeezed, with much difficulty, data on child support enforcement out of the sheriff departments of the State of Massachusetts. His findings? 98% of those arrested for child support indebtedness are fathers and indebted fathers are eight times as likely as indebted mothers to go to jail for their failure to pay. I’d say that stretches the concept of “fairness” far beyond the breaking point. We don’t know Eubanks’ take on it since she unsurprisingly neglected to mention Brennan’s figures, despite their being well-publicized.

So today it’s on to the second contribution to the New York Times forum on child support (New York Times, 4/23/15). But where Eubanks called the system of enforcement “tough but fair,” Kezia Willingham figures it’s not nearly draconian enough. How could anyone draw that conclusion? Well, in Willingham’s case it seems to be a combination of almost complete ignorance of the child support system and bitterness at her ex who, in her description, is uninterested in his child and his child’s welfare.

Her 400-word piece consists almost entirely of a complaint against her ex’s deadbeat behavior and her own striving to succeed.

As a single mother who has raised a child with virtually no assistance from the biological father, I feel strongly that child support enforcement measures are not strong enough.

I doubt that I will ever receive any of the $30,000 he owes. Nor do I spend a great deal of time thinking about it. But I still think he should be obligated to pay what he owes…

While some noncustodial parents take care of their kids on the weekends, he has not…

He is one of many parents who avoid child support obligations, by working under the table jobs such as yard work, or by obtaining fake Social Security numbers to work under a different identity, or by dealing drugs.

It’s a complaint we often hear, but there’s little hard data to support it. Even so, it’s certainly possible to do what she claims her ex is doing, but Willingham neglects to mention what happened when she took her ex to court to prove that he was working in the cash economy. Of course she neglects that either because she didn’t do it or because he isn’t doing what she claims. If she filed a motion with the court, what was the outcome? She doesn’t say. If she didn’t go to court, why didn’t she?

But whatever the truth of her individual conflict with her child’s father, Willingham betrays very little knowledge of the child support system or its enforcement. Has she ever heard of imputed income? If she hauls her ex into court and he claims he has no — or very little — income, the judge will look at his background, his work history, his education, etc. and simply attribute income to him irrespective of whether he actually earns it or not. It’s an insidious process that often results in an order for child support that’s beyond the obligor’s ability to pay, a problem often bewailed by the Office of Child Support Enforcement. Willingham knows nothing of any of this.

But her real agenda doesn’t remain hidden for long.

Many of these individuals may already have criminal records that may act as very real barriers in obtaining legitimate employment. But this does not mean that they should be absolved of their responsibility to their children.

Responsibility? That’s code for ‘money.’ After all, nowhere does she indicate the least interest in any other form of parental responsibility that might be exercised by non-custodial parents. The OCSE reports that non-custodial parents without the means to pay their obligations often provide other necessities — diapers, formula, clothing, childcare and the like. So it’s clear that none of that fills the bill for Willingham.

Her (literal) bottom line is that, whether a parent can get a job and earn money or not, he should still pay what he owes. Needless to say, she offers no intelligence on how that might be done.

And of course she pretends that the only way a man might be so financially hamstrung is if he has a criminal record. Everyone else on the planet knows there are a thousand ways to become unemployable. Physical or mental disability are two obvious ones, but even temporary job loss can result in permanent arrears. That is what happened to Walter Scott, recently gunned down while running from a police officer in the vain hope of avoiding yet another stint in jail.

Perhaps uncomfortable with her own bitterness at her ex’s non-support, Willingham attempts to take refuge in the notion that, if a non-custodial parent falls behind, well, the system’s there to make everything alright.

The child support system already has a series of measures in place to accommodate financial hardship for poor parents. Some of these include: modification, case review and filing a request of extenuating circumstances. But the person who needs these adjustments must take action to start this process.

That was easy. You see, all a person with too little money to pay his child support has to do is hire a lawyer, pay a filing fee and go to court in the hopes of convincing a judge who’s strongly motivated otherwise, to grant him a downward modification.

Hmm. Willingham sees nothing wrong with that. Where does the parent with so little money manage to find the funds for a lawyer? She doesn’t say. The filing fee? Ditto. And of course she’s utterly ignorant of the hefty financial incentives offered states to keep support levels as high as possible. Those strongly encourage judges to set orders too high and refuse requests for downward modifications. The barriers the system places between impecunious obligors and deserved downward modifications are many. Willingham recognizes none of them.

Tellingly, Willingham, who believes that “child support enforcement measures are not strong enough,” actually deals with none of those measures. After all, the spectacle of states sending uneducated, impoverished parents to jail for failure to pay orders they could never have paid in the first place isn’t a very pretty one — to most people at least. Atlanta attorney Sarah Geraghty’s description of the shameful process whereby those parents are processed, without the benefit of counsel, into jail in five-minute hearings never makes it into Willingham’s screed in favor ever harsher penalties for failure to pay.

Unsatisfied by basic concepts of fairness that ought to apply to anyone, Willingham never lets on that the draconian system falls most heavily and almost exclusively on parents too poor to fight for their own interests. To her, we’re not treating those people harshly enough. Hers would be a shameful enough attitude — ignorant and spiteful – for anyone to take, but for a woman with a Master’s degree, a good job and a house owned outright to call for still more severe punishment to be visited on the weak and downtrodden is disgraceful. She ought to be ashamed.

So should the New York Times. A forum on child support is a fine idea, but surely they could have found someone who didn’t quite so blatantly seek to have her own personal vendetta transformed into public policy.

Fortunately, Willingham is essentially alone in her call for still harsher penalties. Those who know something about the system as a whole, instead of just her tiny part in it, call for kinder, gentler and above all more sensible ways of ensuring that children don’t go without. I refer to people like the commissioner of the OCSE, Vicky Turetsky, who’s worked tirelessly toward more effective and less punitive means of establishing and enforcing support orders.

To put it mildly, the current system doesn’t work. Much of the reason lies in its frank assumption that fathers are deadbeats bent on denying their children the basics of life. That of course has never been the case, however much Kezia Willingham might wish to convince us otherwise.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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