Is new child-support amendment 'unfair'?

When President Reagan signed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments earlier this month, it was good news to the 56.7 percent of all parents who have been awarded child custody and who receive none or only part of the money they're entitled to.

But many men's groups see the bill in another light. ''The bill will do something good for children,'' says Don Logan of Free Men, a seven-year-old nonprofit group, ''but we also feel that the unfairness of (it) will become apparent to fathers and light a fire under them as nothing else has.''

The bill brings the collecting power of states to bear on all child-support cases and allows the states to begin withholding child support from the paycheck of a parent who is more than 30 days delinquent, once the parent entitled to the payment demonstrates to a court that no payment has been received. But it does little to address other grievances in the divorce process, which many men's groups say may be behind the nonpayment of child support.

''The lack of paying child support is a symptom of a whole morass of problems ,'' says Neil Gross of a Maryland chapter of Fathers United for Equal Rights.

The divorce process, says one spokesman for another men's group, tends to oust one parent (typically the father) from the family, reducing him to ''nothing but Mr. Moneybags.'' Nonpayment of child support, he believes, is a direct outgrowth of that distancing of the father from his family.

Chief among the complaints of many men's groups is the haphazard way, they say, that visitation rights are enforced. Alan Lebow, president of the National Congress for Men, says he thinks visitation is often simply not enforced, or is enforced so little that the custodial parent ''doesn't take it seriously. If a judge would just say that the right for each parent to see his child is sacred, and I don't want to see you in here again, we wouldn't have these problems.''

Ginny Nuta, spokeswoman for Parents Without Partners, notes that ''if a father skips a state and doesn't pay his child support, there's a mechanism in the present state laws for tracking him down. It's not a very good mechanism and it doesn't work very well,'' she admits, ''but at least it's there. But if a mother takes her child across state lines and refuses to let the father visit them, he's out of luck.''

The child-support bill does require that states set up commissions to study divorce issues such as visitation, an area where ''little is known,'' says Ms. Nuta. ''We don't even have any good statistics on it.''

One factor that may be adding to the problem is the writing of divorce settlements, which often base visitation on whatever is ''convenient'' or ''reasonable'' to the divorcing parties, says Mr. Logan. ''Well, it's never convenient'' for the custodial parent to have the noncustodial parent visit, he points out.

''We have fathers in our group who drive eight hours, both ways, just to see their children over the weekend,'' says Mr. Gross. ''But most fathers become discouraged when the custodial parent tries to shut them out and just give up.''

That, say men's groups, is where the tendency to fall behind on child-support payments begins.

Some of the groups hoped that the bill would link child support and visitation, a link that already occurs in the minds of many noncustodial fathers. ''The more you exclude a father from his role,'' says Mr. Gross, ''the more abuse you build into the system. If a father isn't being allowed to see his children, he may be disinclined to make those child-support payments.''

''We don't condone not paying child support as a weapon,'' says Mr. Logan, ''but we want to see visitation rights enforced rigidly.''

Some fathers also may fall behind in their payments out of resentment for the way they perceive those payments are used. ''You have zero to say about how that money is spent,'' Mr. Gross points out. ''We know of cases where the ex-wife is on drugs, or living with her boyfriend and spending it on him, or paying for a mortgage which will benefit her long after the children are raised, when she could rent and get something better.''

But a spokesman for Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D) of Connecticut, who introduced the bill, points out that most child-support payments are exceptionally low, ''roughly $2,000 annually, so I just don't know where (the mothers are) getting all this spare cash they (men's groups) talk about.''

''There are legitimate problems out there,'' says Ms. Nuta of Parents Without Partners, ''and fathers really are being cut out of their role as fathers. But this bill is for enforcing something which has already been ordered by a court, monies these women are entitled to and need.''

The fathers' groups - composed, they say, of fathers who for the most part do make their payments (''mine is $900 per month,'' says Mr. Gross) - would like legislation to address other issues in family law, such as:

* An emphasis on joint custody, now ''only an option in 60 percent of the states and a preference in none,'' according to Mr. Logan.

* The right for a noncustodial parent to pick a financial institute to administer the payment of child support through payroll deduction, an option Mr. Lebow thinks should ''save the taxpayers millions of dollars.'' Although the law relies primarily on state commissions to administer this task, Representative Kennelly's office believes that such an option would be legal.

* A better effort to gather statistics on the issues of child support, custody, and visitation. ''The statistics everyone uses were gathered by the Census Bureau from divorced mothers,'' says Mr. Lebow, ''who are not exactly unbiased sources.''

He suspects that the 28 percent of parents the Census Bureau says don't pay any of their court-ordered child support are uneducated, unemployed fathers with a history of not supporting the family prior to the divorce. But Representative Kennelly's aides say that academic studies they've seen show that nonpayment of child support runs across economic and social lines.

* Law that allows the court to review the custodial parent's behavior as to how often and how much she allows the noncustodial parent access to his child. ''The court never gives up its jurisdiction over child custody,'' says Mr. Gross , ''and there have been a few cases where custody has been reversed. The behavior of the noncustodial parent should be a factor in those sorts of review cases.''

All the groups contacted say they hope the new law will focus more attention on the need to keep both parents actively involved with their children after a divorce, an involvement that would greatly benefit all parties.

''The best statement for keeping both parents involved after the divorce,'' says Mr. Lebow, ''came from a nine-year-old in California who said, 'My Mom and Dad got a good divorce - I got to keep both of them.' That's want we want,'' he concludes.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.