Here’s a good article (Columbus Dispatch, 9/27/10). It says a lot, both in the words it uses and in those it doesn’t. It’s about child support and the strange notion that child support should go to the child. I know that shouldn’t be such a strange notion, but often it is.
Dale Lovett had a brief affair with an unmarried woman about six years ago. She had his son for whom he dutifully paid support. But now the boy, who is five years old, has come to live with Dale, but for months, the state still took his support payment out of his paycheck and dutifully sent it to the mother. Lovett complained to a couple of different agencies to no avail. The mother signed an affidavit that said the child no longer lived with her, but Lovett still couldn’t get his payments stopped. He wrote to the governor; nothing. It took pressure from the Columbus Dispatch to make someone pay attention. Now Lovett has both his son and, as the article so pointedly puts it, his whole paycheck.
It’s the same old story that I’ve been griping about for longer than I care to remember. States make it easy to establish paternity (so easy, sometimes any guy will do) and issue a child support order, but try to modify that order and it’s the 13th labor of Hercules. Often enough, modification is sought because the dad lost his job. So what do states do? They require him to go to court to get the order changed; that usually means hiring an attorney which he can’t remotely afford and in any event it takes months to get a hearing. By then he’s deeply in arrears with no job and no way of paying. And of course, interest kicks in and with the steadily rising arrearages, he may as well just check into jail.
Does the process help the child? Well, if the goal is to provide support, it’s hard to see how a father sitting in a jail cell helps.
Dale Lovett’s case is different, but the result was similar – his child was denied support. The state of Ohio’s failure to provide summary procedures for altering child support meant that, even though his son lived with him, Lovett’s paycheck was still lighter than it should have been because he was still paying the non-custodial mother. Did that help his son? No, but if the media hadn’t taken up his cause, I suppose he’d still be paying.
The problem could be solved if states would simply hire special masters or magistrates who do nothing but decide issues of child support modification. As with most such courts, they would relax the rules of evidence and publish what a person trying to modify an order would need to show the court to be successful. In Lovett’s case, probably the affidavit of his son’s mother would have been sufficient. In court it’s hearsay and of no value. People like Lovett wouldn’t need an attorney; basically, they’d just go before the master and state their case; the other party would have an opportunity to be heard and a ruling would be issued on the spot. The whole thing would probably take 10 minutes.
That would be quicker, easier, cheaper and fairer than the current system. It would also allow children like Dale Lovett’s son to get the support they need.
But the lack of summary procedures, while important, isn’t the only problem. The other is the lack of equality.
Custodial rights automatically start with the mother when a child is born out of wedlock, as about 40 percent of Ohio children are. Child-support agencies can order support for her once paternity is established. But to terminate support or send it elsewhere usually requires a custody ruling in court.
As Glenn Harris of the Columbus Urban League told the Dispatch,
“When you’re not married, as a father, you have no legal rights except to pay the support,” Harris said. Anything else must be sought in court.
So equalizing the rights of unmarried mothers and unmarried fathers would be a place to start. As Harris said, single fathers are ordered to pay support by the state enforcement agency. But in Lovett’s case and countless others, the same is not true of single mothers. It’s one of the things the article overlooks, but, while Lovett was ordered to pay by the Ohio child support agency, the same thing didn’t happen to his son’s mother when the boy came to live with Lovett. Why not? We can only guess. Supposedly the child support agency cares about parents supporting their children, but in Lovett’s case, it completely ignored one source of parental support – the mother’s.
The other is that, again as Lovett’s case shows, as a single father, his access to his child is entirely controlled by the mother. She became pregnant, but the first he knew about it was “when a letter came from the child support agency.” By refusing to require mothers to inform fathers of the existence of their children before birth, we only make it harder for fathers to connect with and support them. All states should pass laws requiring mothers to tell the father about his child before birth. If she’s not sure who the father is, she should be required to tell all potential dads.
I’d say such a law “is just simple justice,” except that, in the field of fathers’ rights, justice rarely seems simple.
Thanks to Don for the heads-up.