State errors unfairly cast some dads as deadbeats
A divorced father with three children, Mike Bannister of Chicago has always paid his child support on time. But when Illinois, like other states, adopted a new collection system last fall, problems began. For three months Mr. Bannister's former wife got none of the money deducted from his paychecks.Skip to next paragraph
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When he called the agency to report the problem, he says, it gave him "the runaround."
It's a familiar story. Since states switched to the new system in October, a growing number of parents who make child-support payments have complained of billing errors.
While such mistakes pose an obvious hardship for divorced families, they also take an emotional toll on the paying parent, usually fathers. Some say the errors are further stigmatizing these men, who worry that they're being wrongly slapped with the label of "deadbeat dad." So widespread are the problems that yesterday, divorced parents and supporters staged protests at 160 sites in 35 states, carrying signs that read: "Stop child support agency errors" and "I'm a dad, not a wallet."
"All we want is that agencies be held accountable," says Diann Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, organizers of the protest. "There's so much documented evidence of these errors, and yet nothing is done."
In some cases, like Bannister's, money never gets to the parent with the child, usually the mother. Other times she receives the money, but the states have no record that the payment was made. Sometimes an angry mother, deprived of money she needs for food and rent, denies her former husband visitation with the children, even though the situation is not his fault.
In a study released Aug. 8 by the coalition, 55 percent of child-support payers say they have experienced billing errors by a child-support agency. Among those who tried to get the agency to fix the error, 61 percent were unsuccessful. In 43 percent of cases, the payer had been subjected to punitive measures as a result of a billing error, such as having cars booted or assets seized.
Federal law mandated the changes in the collection system. According to the law, states had to set up centralized clearinghouses to replace old structures for collection and dispersal. Many states, like Illinois, previously moved the payments though county courts.
"The system was not broken, and we tried to fix it," says Joel Kagann, clerk of the circuit court for DuPage County. "The problem with child support is not the collection and distribution system. The problem is the enforcement" - getting nonpayers to pay, he says. "Once they're paying, the monies being collected were properly and efficiently being distributed by the clerks of the court."
Others agree, saying the US would spend its money more efficiently if it just focused on policing parents who miss their payments.