The Peculiar Genius of Child Support Enforcement

May 28, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

We say that we want children to have financial support.  They need it, after all, and if an adult makes the decision to bring a child into the world, he/she should be obliged to provide what’s necessary to give it a full, healthy life.  When parents divorce, neither of them magically loses that obligation. 

Fair enough.

But if we do want children to be supported financially, why do we make it so hard on non-custodial parents to do so?  Why don’t we, for example, order equal parenting in the great majority of divorce and custody cases?  That would mean each parent could simply bear the costs of caring for the child when little Andy or Jenny is with them, plus half of the non-everyday expenses.  In short, most child support orders would simply become moot and a huge area of conflict between parents would vanish.

Or, if we’re bound and determined to force one parent to pay the other, why not provide equal funding for enforcement of visitation and child support orders?  As things stand now, the federal government pays states $5 billion per year to enforce child support orders, but only $10 million for visitation, a 500:1 ratio.  And that $10 million is explicitly prohibited from being used for what non-custodial parents trying to see their kids need most – legal representation.  That gross imbalance between child support and visitation enforcement exists despite the known fact that NC parents who don’t encounter barriers to seeing their kids are far more likely to pay what they owe.

Then there are the even more obvious absurdities of the current system of child support enforcement, which bring us to the current case, that of Jamie Wesley (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5/25/19).

Wesley started adult life as a genuinely bad person.  Among other things, he spent 12 years in a federal prison for drug and weapons offenses, but eventually, he was released, having paid his debt to society.  At the encouraging of Federal Judge Richard Webber, Wesley began getting his life together.  He got a commercial driver’s license and a job as a long-haul truck driver earning a pretty good salary.

Then the state of Missouri came calling.

It was Sept. 10, 2018. Wesley was about 120 miles outside of Lansing, Mich., when his boss called.

The family support division of the Missouri Department of Social Services had suspended his driver’s license because Wesley was behind on child support.

Of course he was behind on child support.  The State of Missouri had ignored the fact that he was in prison and, for all those 12 years, kept upping his indebtedness, doubtless with interest added on.  How it expected him to pay while in prison is one of the many mysteries of the child support enforcement system.

But Wesley’s no fool.  He knew what had been going on and had filed for a modification of his child support order.  He had a hearing date of September 24.  The state authorities ignored that too and suspended his license without a hearing.

Now he had no driver’s license. He was fired on the spot, hundreds of miles from home.

“I had to pull over and sit and wait for somebody to come get me,” Wesley says. He slept in his truck on the side of the road.

Missouri is the “Show Me” State.  So I’m certain that someone there can show me how suspending Wesley’s license and getting him fired from the only decent job he’s had in over 12 years helps anyone.  Does it help him?  His kids?  His ex?  Will his children be assisted in receiving the support he owes by depriving him of the ability to earn a living?  By all means, show me.

The same problem of course exists nationwide.  We indulge in the fantasy that, in some way, taking away a parent’s livelihood makes him/her more likely to be able to support their child.  We don’t do that for married parents, only divorced ones.  It must have taken a sort of evil genius to think up this system and convince an entire country to implement it.

Not all is madness in Missouri, though.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced a plan to stop prosecuting most child support cases in criminal court. And it’s why two civil rights organizations — Equal Justice Under Law and St. Francis Community Services — filed a federal class action lawsuit in March seeking to end Missouri’s practice of driver’s license suspension in child support cases.

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