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Deadbeat Dads? Look Closer

Bureaucratic fiats on how much is owed don't tell the whole story

By Bruce Walker / August 16, 1996

Deadbeat dads are the special targets of politicians hungry for the perfect scapegoat. Child-support enforcement must be tougher and tougher until all of these deadbeat dads are made to feel the lash, and all will be well.

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I have put hundreds of these deadbeat dads in jail, and I have collected child support from tens of thousands of them. I was the primary or only trial attorney in three child-support enforcement offices for eight years, and then I ran the Oklahoma child-support enforcement program for three years.

The real deadbeat dad is seldom a model citizen, but he is even more seldom the mythical monster described by politicians. Most deadbeat dads are frightened, angry, and depressed men who fall into several overlapping categories:

Remarried Supporter. A large percentage of deadbeat dads are remarried and are supporting several step-children or biological children from a second marriage.

Often this family is poorer than the household of his ex-wife, who may have married a more successful breadwinner. It is also common for the ex-wife of a deadbeat dad to have remarried another deadbeat dad, who is supporting her and her children.

Men in Poverty. Many deadbeat dads are homeless, and an even greater percentage are poor. Because the calculation of a woman's income excludes many of the social welfare benefits she receives, the statistical picture of women in poverty is highly misleading. Not only are many deadbeat dads destitute, it is often their failures as providers which led their ex-wives to divorce them. I prosecuted one deadbeat dad who had been hospitalized for malnutrition and another who lived in the bed of a pick-up truck.

Many times I prosecuted impoverished men on behalf of ex-wives who had remarried successful men and were living in comfortable conditions.

Fathers Helping Mothers. Men who provide non-monetary support are deadbeat dads according to the child-support system. Mothers and fathers often work out agreements for child support that involve dad fixing the car, buying groceries, baby-sitting the children, or getting clothes for the children.

These men may be unemployed, but they want to help their children. Sometimes they are concerned that monetary support doesn't benefit the children, but the mother's newest boyfriend - or that it goes to buy drugs or alcohol. None of the non-monetary support counts, even if the mother and father want it to count and even if they agree in writing that it should count.

Fathers Paying Child Support. Child support is "paid" only when it's paid in a bureaucratically acceptable form. In a child-support program, the jargon for other means of payment is a "shoe box full of receipts" - which means a father who was paying his support, but not through court or the program.

I had thousands of these cases. In one, the mother signed an affidavit that the dad had never paid. But when confronted with receipts acknowledged that he had always paid support. Why would she do that? She was on welfare; her child support became the property of the state and federal government. If she keeps the child support, it is welfare fraud.

Why would concerned fathers pay child support directly to the mother? The bookkeeping in child support offices is atrocious. The mother could be confused with another woman or the paying father with another man.

Men with actual custody. Yes, even men who are raising in their homes the very children for whom child support is sought are deadbeat dads. If a court order says that the mother has custody and is entitled to child support, and if the mother gives the father the children because she cannot control them or has other problems, then he is still liable for child support.