Military dads seek fair child support
Like many military reservists, Mark Wetzel took a pay cut when he was called for active duty last year. Instead of the $31,000 he earns as a nursing assistant in a Philadelphia hospital, he received $27,000 as a Navy corpsman serving in Kosovo.Skip to next paragraph
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But one thing didn't change: his child-support payments. A family court declined to reduce the $899 a month he pays to his estranged wife and two children.
As more National Guard and reserve units are deployed for the war in Iraq - 216,800 have been called to active duty so far - more noncustodial parents find themselves in the same circumstances that Wetzel did. If they fall behind in child-support payments because of reduced wages, they could incur penalties when they return home.
"The issue is very real," says Cmdr. James Semerad, a family readiness officer in the naval reserves at Fort Belvoir, Va. A month ago, he gave a presentation on child support to his unit, telling them, "Your [child-support] obligations don't go away."
Similar challenges confront another group of noncustodial parents these days - those who are unemployed. As downsizing continues, some laid-off workers, living on modest unemployment checks or savings, are unable to keep up court-ordered payments.
Now some family advocates are making quiet pleas for realism and reform for both groups of parents.
"People can't pay what they don't make," says Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "We're not saying that servicemen should not support their kids. But we can't ask people to serve their country and not give them some protection. And when people get laid off through no fault of their own, we can't punish them by giving them unrealistic child-support orders."
In 2000, nearly 14 million custodial parents cared for 22 million children under the age of 21. Among these custodial parents, 85 percent are women and 15 percent men. In the middle are children whose need for food, clothes, and haircuts does not diminish when a noncustodial parent goes to war or loses a job.
Yet challenges exist in determining fairness and in overcoming bureaucratic obstacles. Some reservists receive only a few days' notice to report for duty. For them it is impossible to get a court hearing to request a reduction in child support. Other reservists mistakenly assume they can work out the details when they return.
"I receive calls from soldiers all the time, and they're not being informed," says Jeffrey Leving, a fathers'-rights attorney in Chicago. "A lot of them are going to be coming back from Iraq and face court proceedings." After Desert Storm, many men who contacted him had large child-support arrearages they could not afford to pay.
Legal experts trace part of the challenge to measures put in place over the years to protect custodial parents and children from constant changes in support or lapses in payment. Federal law, they note, prohibits courts from retroactively modifying or forgiving child-support debts. In 1999, 46 percent of custodial mothers - 2.8 million women - who were owed child support collected the full amount, according to the Census Bureau. One-quarter of those due support received nothing.
The Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act, which limits annual interest rates on credit-card debts, mortgages, and car loans to 6 percent during military service, does not cover child-support arrearages. And some states limit how often parents can request changes in support.
These measures, says Mark Rogers of Atlanta, an economist and expert witness on child support, were enacted in the "best interest of the child," but "without regard for economic common sense and an overall sense of fairness."