When do stiff penalties for deadbeat parents go to far?

Reforms passed by Congress in 1996 have keyed a nationwide crackdown.But critics say the laws are too broad.

Not so long ago, getting tough on deadbeat parents meant taking away their driver's licenses or perhaps withholding tax refunds. Nowadays, failure to pay child support can land a parent in jail.

Three years after Congress enacted sweeping reforms, child-support enforcement laws have never been more severe. Indeed, under federal law - and in a growing number of states - failure to pay child support has been elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony offense.

Some parent's advocates say the new measures go too far and may do more harm than good. But supporters counter that sanctions are necessary - and are paying off.

"For 1998, we're up $14.4 billion in [child-support] collections," says Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. "That's an increase of 80 percent since 1992." In fact, more than 4.3 million families today are getting child support, he notes - an increase of 40 percent since 1992.

Four years ago, the Urban Institute released a startling report indicating that fewer than 40 percent of single mothers received any child support. To help, Congress passed its reforms in 1996 as part of a welfare-reform package. Those changes are now having an effect.

For example, a new federal program that requires all employers to report their new hires located more than 1.2 million deadbeat parents in its first year, says Mr. Kharfen. Also, mandatory wage-withholding now forces these parents to meet their child-support obligations. And a pilot project in Columbus, Ohio, that targets parents who owe more than $10,000 in child support already has produced more than 300 felony arrests.

The courts, meanwhile, have been taking a similarly stern view of scofflaw parents. That was evidenced in Colorado earlier this month, when the state Supreme Court upheld a 90-day jail sentence for a divorced father who owed some $20,000 in back child-support payments.

Even after the defendant produced a check for the full amount owed, the court set a precedent by refusing to waive the jail sentence: In a unanimous decision, the court deemed jail time an appropriate "punitive sanction," rather than merely a remedial measure to force payment.

"They ought to do more of this, because there would be more support paid on time," says Frank McGuane, the Denver lawyer who successfully argued the Colorado Supreme Court case. "It's going to give people who don't pay [child support] the incentive to find the money - before they pay their mortgage payment, before their car payment, before anything else."

To some, that line of reasoning goes too far. Without a home and car, a parent's ability to earn a living is compromised, and that won't help improve the welfare of children, says Stuart Miller, senior legislative analysts for the America Fathers Coalition in Washington. "When dads don't pay child support, the No. 1 reason is unemployment," he says. "There's barely a homeless man on the street that doesn't owe $30,000 to $50,000 in child support. Eighty percent of felons in prison owe child support.

Others say the whole get-tough movement is too strict, not making allowances for legitimate excuses. "The law is a very blunt instrument," says Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md. "When you look at those guys who are not paying child support, you have to subdivide it into the deadbeat dads and the dead-broke dads. If you put a dead-broke dad in jail, how is he going to pay child support?"

Officials counter that such sanctions aren't intended for parents without financial resources. "We're talking about people who have the ability to pay, but don't," says Kharfen. "That's just not acceptable."

And states are becoming more discerning about imposing sanctions, says Teresa Myers, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "They are realizing that there is a difference between can't pay and won't pay. They aren't applying these measures to everyone."

Still, critics say family situations are complex, making any broad-brush solution problematic.

"I get calls from men saying that their ex-wife's boyfriend called to complain that he needs the child-support check so he can get his car fixed. That doesn't exactly motivate a father to send a check," Mr. Miller says. "There's no law that requires the money from child support to be spent on the child."

In fact, the well-being of children should be the focus of child-support policies - not tougher criminal sanctions, says Mr. Horn at the National Fatherhood Initiative. "What we need in this situation is not someone who will come in with a bazooka and blow up everyone who hasn't paid child support. Life is complicated.... It's not as simple as saying, 'If you land on this box, you go to jail.' "

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