The Poverty Industry, Part 4: Taking Child Support

October 2, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Daniel Hatcher’s final example of the Poverty Industry in the United States running roughshod over the very people it’s supposed to help is child support. His first two were foster care and Medicaid.

Now, regular readers of this blog know that, when a poor custodial parent receives benefits under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act, the state demands reimbursement of all amounts received from the non-custodial parent. If the non-custodial father hasn’t been identified, then the state demands that the mother provide his name and contact information. The state then sues the father for the amounts paid to the mother under TANF. And it also asks the court to enter an order of ongoing child support. In the process, if he’s lucky, the dad may also get an order for some parenting time.

Hatcher rightly points out that this scheme sets up a conflict for states. On one hand, family courts and child support agencies are supposed to act in the best interests of children. On the other, they’re required to take child support money paid by noncustodial parents for themselves as reimbursement for welfare benefits paid to the custodial parent. Many people have pointed out that doing so hardly serves the best interests of the child in question, but states do it anyway. (Not long ago, children’s advocates in British Columbia successfully defeated a similar “claw back” practice.)

What Hatcher fails to mention, and that would have further supported his point of view, is the fact that non-custodial fathers are far less likely to pay child support when they know it’s not going to their child but to the state than they are when it goes to their child. So not only does the requirement to reimburse TANF benefits deprive the child of support, it lessens the amount received. In short, it’s a lose/lose proposition.

Again, this is all well known. But, as with foster care and Medicaid, the opportunity to realize a stream of income apparently makes states an offer they find it hard to refuse. Given the choice of allowing money to flow to kids or to their own coffers, states opt for the latter. Consider, as Hatcher allows us to, the case of Mr. Derek Harvey, a resident of Maryland.

Mr. Harvey was a poor man, but dedicated to raising his children. He had four by two different women, both of whom received TANF benefits. For a time, the children lived with their mothers, but one of the moms died and the other abandoned her kids. Mr. Harvey stepped up. He took in all the kids and another as well who wasn’t even fathered by him. Life was difficult for Mr. Harvey who earned only about $11 per hour working as a landscaper for the City of Baltimore.

The City of Baltimore Office of Child Support Enforcement had hired a private contractor, MAXIMUS, to collect reimbursements from non-custodial parents, so it went after Mr. Harvey to collect for the payments made to the two mothers. It first claimed he owed the state $32,000, an amount that included child support for the time the children lived with him. Harvey convinced a judge that he only owed about $10,000, but, on a wage of $11 per hour, even that sum was far beyond his ability to pay.

Accordingly, the state had an obvious conflict. Mr. Harvey’s kids lived with him and he cared for them well enough. But finances were tight, so every dollar mattered. To take the $10,000 from him would seriously impact the interests of the five children he cared for. To not take it would be a loss to the state treasury. I’ll give you one guess what choice the state made.

Mr. Harvey pointed out that the state has discretion about whether or not to seek reimbursement of the amounts owed. Remarkably, the state agreed, but then in stepped MAXIMUS. The company claimed that its job was to maximize revenue to the state and such a waiver would impact its bottom line. After all, if the state were to make a habit of favoring children over the receipt of money owed to it, the company’s bottom line would be affected. Plus, its record of increasing recovery rates would be impaired, adversely affecting its reputation and ability to be hired by other states.

So the state agency caved.

The state gave priority to the fiscal interests of MAXIMUS over the best interests of the children.

And the trial and appellate courts agreed with that decision. All courts recognized the necessity of company’s like MAXIMUS to earn a profit and the parallel desire of the state to offer them to opportunity to do so. None of the courts paid much attention to the simultaneous need of children for support or state statutes calling for courts to act in their best interests. Once again, states had resolved a conflict between their desires and children’s needs in their own favor.

It’s not just TANF benefits that states offset against child support payments; the cost of foster care gets the same treatment, but with an extra indignity. When an abused or neglected child is taken into foster care, states demand child support from the parents, but whatever is paid goes to reimburse the state for the costs of care. As before, reimbursement of foster care costs isn’t the obligation of parents. States are required by state and federal law and court precedent to pay the cost of care themselves. Undeterred, they go after parents. The final indignity comes from the fact that only poor parents, i.e. those eligible for Title IV-E payments are required to pay the state. Affluent parents are often given a pass.

Of course, most state child welfare agencies at least make a show of seeking to reunify families after a child is taken into care. But many “include the child support payments as a requirement in plans before reunification can be considered. States convert foster children into collateral, with parents only able to seek reunification if they can pay off the government debt first.” Nice.

Hatcher gives the example of a North Carolina father who lost his daughter and his rights to her for a debt to the state of $72.80.

It seems he was a good and loving father whom the agency had documented to be a positive force in his daughter’s life. But when he was incarcerated for a short time, the state moved to terminate his rights.

While the girl “was in her father’s care, DSS concluded the minor child was happy, healthy, clothed and well-fed…”

So the social worker approved a plan of reunification with her dad. But it was not to be because, “the agency simultaneously initiated proceedings to terminate parental rights.” Why?

Although the father made only pennies a day working in the prison kitchen, and he did not even know he owed support because there was no child support order in place, the court found that he should have paid to reimburse the costs of foster care…. At 40 cents a day, the father earned $2.80 per week. Thus, considering his total earnings and e maximum amount of support he could have paid during the statutory period, the father’s parental rights were terminated for a government debt of $72.80.

That’s the poverty industry in action. Remember that the next time someone extols the virtues of state interference in family life.

A thousand thanks to Daniel Hatcher for giving us this fine and necessary book.




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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