Child Support: What Courts Say, What Parents Pay

FOR 10 divorced fathers whose children live in Virginia, late-summer headlines brought unexpected publicity and profound humiliation. Suddenly their private refusal to pay court-ordered child support became a matter of public record. Their names were published in newspapers in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and they were saddled with an embarrassing label: the ``10 Most Wanted'' delinquent fathers in the state.

A pediatrician owed $107,000. A chemical analyst with his own business had failed to pay $39,000. A pilot was $13,000 in arrears. A laborer and a truck driver each owed $12,000. But only after all other attempts to collect support from them had failed did the Virginia Department of Social Services release its list.

The public exposure - a device also used in Illinois, Texas, and Missouri - worked. Within a week the department received payments from or information on 5 of the 10 men.

About the same time, a sheriff in Monmouth County, N.J., sent out 38 officers one night to serve warrants on 66 delinquent fathers. Thirty-six of them were awakened, handcuffed, and led off to the county jail until they paid part of their debts, which totaled $217,000.

These dramatic measures are two of the latest get-tough tactics child-support enforcers are using to force noncustodial parents to open their checkbooks on behalf of their children. Arguing that nonpayment of support constitutes a form of child abuse, enforcers are also withholding wages, extraditing delinquent parents from other states, intercepting tax refunds, seizing state lottery winnings, and placing liens on property in their attempts to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid support - money they say often leaves children and their custodial parents in difficult, even desperate, circumstances.

Nationwide, more than half of noncustodial parents do not pay child support. And although 95 percent of parents whose payments are delinquent are fathers, they are not the only scofflaws.

Thomas Bailey, an attorney in Milwaukee, says, ``As a 20-year practitioner of family law, I can tell you that there is no one more resistant to paying child support than a noncustodial mother.''

Starting this month, under provisions of the Family Support Act of 1988, states must adopt uniform child-support guidelines for judges to consider in awarding payments. Child advocates hope that by establishing sensible and fair support agreements, they will increase collections and reduce acrimony between divorcing parents.

In Wisconsin, where such guidelines have existed for five years, support is calculated as a fixed percentage of a noncustodial parent's gross income: 17 percent for one child, 25 percent for two children, 29 percent for three. The money is automatically withheld from the parent's paycheck.

So successful is Wisconsin's program that during the first three years of its existence, custodial parents and their children received an additional $53 million.

Legislation, of course, cannot solve all problems. Self-employed parents, whose wages are less easily calculated and traced, continue to present challenges, as do those who are unemployed.

Even with uniform guidelines, moreover, there will always be divorced fathers who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have been ``taken to the cleaners'' in a divorce settlement. And there will always be divorced mothers who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their children have been denied an equitable share of the father's income and assets.

But anything that can minimize the need for ``10 Most Wanted'' lists, police sweeps, and newsletters like ``The Robin Hood Report'' (``We take from the deadbeat dads and give to their families'') published by a Los Angeles law firm that specializes in collecting support, must be hailed as progress.

Only when children are no longer held hostage economically, caught in the crossfire between warring parents, can the American way of divorce be considered civilized. To that end, the heartening new message coming from lawmakers, judges, social workers, and police is this: Both parents, regardless of their current marital status, have a responsibility to share in the costs of raising their children. No excuses allowed.

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