When Child Support Policies Hurt Fathers and Their Children

August 12, 2014 by Don Hubin, PhD, Chair, Executive Committee, National Parents Organization of Ohio

The Atlantic published a very interesting article by Elizabeth Stuart, “How Anti-Poverty Programs Marginalize Fathers.” It’s definitely worth a read and you can find it on line here. It recounts a number of ways in which well-intentioned child support laws and policies have hurt the most vulnerable fathers and the children they were designed to help.

That many child support laws and policies have treated fathers unfairly and hampered their ability to be true fathers to their children is probably the result a failure to appreciate the role that fathers play in their children’s lives, other than that of financial supporter. As Stuart says, “[t]he biggest flaw in anti-poverty policies is that they don’t take into account the role that fathers play in children’s lives.” Given that failure, many legislators and officials in the child support system have simply not been concerned with the effect of their laws and policies on fathers. As I once heard a federal child support official say in a conference presentation, “We don’t care about the fathers; all that matters is the children.”

It is, then, tragically ironic that, as Kristin Harknet, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania says, “[i]n some ways, child-support enforcement is actually having a negative effect on children.” How could that be? It is all about the children. Right? How could child support enforcement hurt children?

Well, once you recognize that fathers are more than ATMs for their children, you can understand how child support enforcement could hurt children if it drove fathers out of their lives. But, even if you think only in terms of a father’s financial support for children, child support enforcement can hurt children. Let me tell you what I learned from two child support officers.

Some years ago, as a result of my leadership role in promoting shared parenting, greater paternal involvement by divorced fathers, and equitable child support laws, I was asked to serve on a panel with two child support officers before an audience of Head Start organizers. I expected that this could turn into a point/counterpoint session. I was, though, very pleasantly surprised to find that these two child support officers were fully aware of, and very concerned about, the way that child support laws and policies of enforcement often treated fathers unfairly and disadvantaged children. They told me, and the audience, the following story, which is worth bearing in mind when you think about child support policy. They described it as “not uncommon.”

Dad and Mom are living together, unmarried, but sharing expenses to raise their children. Dad’s bringing home his paycheck, buying food, diapers, and so forth. Mom loses her job and seeks public assistance. To get the public assistance, she needs to identify the father. She does this, often not understanding the consequences. The Child Support Agency, establishes paternity and gets a child support order against the father. The father is angry because he’s been support his children and now his paycheck is garnished to send a child support check to the mother (taking out administrative fees for the CS agency, of course). Mom and Dad argue; the relation spins out of control and Dad moves out. Now there are two stories to tell.

In the real world, the children are deprived of their father’s regular care; they may seldom see him. They are deprived of most of the benefit of his income because he is not now sharing in the cost of the housing directly. Child support doesn’t make up for that because, obviously, it’s based on the assumption that child support obligors have to support themselves, too, in separate housing. The real world story is: less money for the kids, less Dad for the kids, less help for Mom in raising the kids: a triple loss.

But there’s another story: the story as told by the child support system. In this story, the world looks different: paternity was established, a child support order was issued, and child support was collected and disbursed to the mother. This is a triple play in the books of the child support system.

The problem is: people, including children, live in the real world, not in the distorted books of the child support system.

Child support laws and policies need to be reformed so that they’re fair to both parents and really benefit the children. That requires them to be designed to support equal shared parenting. This can be done, but only if we quit basing our policies on, as Elizabeth Stuart describes it, “decades-old stereotypes that unmarried dads are ‘deadbeats’” and recognize that children benefit when both parents share in raising them.


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.

2 replies on “When Child Support Policies Hurt Fathers and Their Children”

Let’s enact a rebuttable presumption that each parent spending as equal as practical time with the child(ren) is in the best interest of the child(ren).

Child support is usually done by percentage of non-custodial parent income or a worksheet with both parent incomes. What is never considered is what happens when the non-custodial parent loses their income. Once they lose that income, they most likely are unable to keep up with CS payments, so the courts come after them and threaten that parent with all sorts of things, including additional court/lawyer fees they can’t afford. How about a simple system where if this happens the NC parent can petition the court for a “stay” or reduced payment without attorneys. Would be so easy to do. Instead, the system sets up the NC parent so they have nothing, can’t pay, threatened with jail time, so in extreme cases they take off. I paid every dime of my CS in the past, but I had to deal with this issue a few times and it is a very scary situation. Wake up people/legislators? make the systems easy to negotiate. AND, I have no issue for going after the real deadbeats.

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