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.
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.
"We're spending millions and millions of US taxpayer dollars on these programs, when most of them are unnecessary," says Jeffrey Leving, an attorney in Chicago specializing in family law. "We really only need to garnish the paychecks of fathers who are deadbeats."
But supporters of the new system say it has its advantages, despite problems in a few states, including Illinois. For paycheck deductions, which make up more than 60 percent of all child-support payments, employers only need to send one check rather than many. Money can also be dispersed more quickly. The goal is to process payments within two days. It took five days previously.
Moreover, the switch has not been rough everywhere. Maryland, for example, has had a "smooth transition," notes Kay Cullen, spokeswoman for the National Child Support Enforcement Association in Washington.
Among yesterday's protesters, though, the collection errors were just one part of what they see as broader injustices in the child-support system. Some also said that payments are reaching unreasonably high levels.
Rick Fonseca of Salinas, Calif., had his monthly child-support raised from $2,200 to $4,877 - more than half his paycheck - by the district attorney's office last year. That covers four children in three families.
"It has affected me emotionally, financially, and with my current wife," he says.
He says it recently cost him his job. Because of stress in recent months, he says, his performance went down so much that he was terminated. "I don't mind paying child support, but the amount has to be fair," he adds.
States are trying to ensure fair payments in different ways. In California, George Norton, a family-law attorney in Palm Springs, developed a software program called SupporTax to calculate child-support payments in the state. He calls California's amount "high but realistic." He also terms the state's collection process "fairly good" in some counties, "terrible" in others.
"Many people involved think the rules aren't fair," Mr. Norton says. "It's about as fair as you can get. Nothing's perfect." In cases like Mr. Fonseca's, he says, "One of the problems is, guidelines do not tell you what to do if you have more than one family."
Although 90 percent of child-support paying parents are fathers, the protesters are not all men. "There are a lot of women involved in this movement - second wives, mothers, grandmothers," says protester Dave Usher.
Many of the protesters - men and women - are concerned that punitive measures for nonpaying parents are being strengthened, while safety measures remain the same.
Child-support activists like Ms. Cullen defend these punitive measures, but they also say they would like to see a more amicable approach by all parties in cases of divorce.
"I would hope there would come a day when the child-support industry would not be necessary," says Cullen. "But until that day comes, we'll be here."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society