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Is new child-support amendment 'unfair'?

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 1984

When President Reagan signed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments earlier this month, it was good news to the 56.7 percent of all parents who have been awarded child custody and who receive none or only part of the money they're entitled to.

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But many men's groups see the bill in another light. ''The bill will do something good for children,'' says Don Logan of Free Men, a seven-year-old nonprofit group, ''but we also feel that the unfairness of (it) will become apparent to fathers and light a fire under them as nothing else has.''

The bill brings the collecting power of states to bear on all child-support cases and allows the states to begin withholding child support from the paycheck of a parent who is more than 30 days delinquent, once the parent entitled to the payment demonstrates to a court that no payment has been received. But it does little to address other grievances in the divorce process, which many men's groups say may be behind the nonpayment of child support.

''The lack of paying child support is a symptom of a whole morass of problems ,'' says Neil Gross of a Maryland chapter of Fathers United for Equal Rights.

The divorce process, says one spokesman for another men's group, tends to oust one parent (typically the father) from the family, reducing him to ''nothing but Mr. Moneybags.'' Nonpayment of child support, he believes, is a direct outgrowth of that distancing of the father from his family.

Chief among the complaints of many men's groups is the haphazard way, they say, that visitation rights are enforced. Alan Lebow, president of the National Congress for Men, says he thinks visitation is often simply not enforced, or is enforced so little that the custodial parent ''doesn't take it seriously. If a judge would just say that the right for each parent to see his child is sacred, and I don't want to see you in here again, we wouldn't have these problems.''

Ginny Nuta, spokeswoman for Parents Without Partners, notes that ''if a father skips a state and doesn't pay his child support, there's a mechanism in the present state laws for tracking him down. It's not a very good mechanism and it doesn't work very well,'' she admits, ''but at least it's there. But if a mother takes her child across state lines and refuses to let the father visit them, he's out of luck.''

The child-support bill does require that states set up commissions to study divorce issues such as visitation, an area where ''little is known,'' says Ms. Nuta. ''We don't even have any good statistics on it.''

One factor that may be adding to the problem is the writing of divorce settlements, which often base visitation on whatever is ''convenient'' or ''reasonable'' to the divorcing parties, says Mr. Logan. ''Well, it's never convenient'' for the custodial parent to have the noncustodial parent visit, he points out.

''We have fathers in our group who drive eight hours, both ways, just to see their children over the weekend,'' says Mr. Gross. ''But most fathers become discouraged when the custodial parent tries to shut them out and just give up.''

That, say men's groups, is where the tendency to fall behind on child-support payments begins.

Some of the groups hoped that the bill would link child support and visitation, a link that already occurs in the minds of many noncustodial fathers. ''The more you exclude a father from his role,'' says Mr. Gross, ''the more abuse you build into the system. If a father isn't being allowed to see his children, he may be disinclined to make those child-support payments.''