Deadbeat Dads? Look Closer

Bureaucratic fiats on how much is owed don't tell the whole story

Deadbeat dads are the special targets of politicians hungry for the perfect scapegoat. Child-support enforcement must be tougher and tougher until all of these deadbeat dads are made to feel the lash, and all will be well.

I have put hundreds of these deadbeat dads in jail, and I have collected child support from tens of thousands of them. I was the primary or only trial attorney in three child-support enforcement offices for eight years, and then I ran the Oklahoma child-support enforcement program for three years.

The real deadbeat dad is seldom a model citizen, but he is even more seldom the mythical monster described by politicians. Most deadbeat dads are frightened, angry, and depressed men who fall into several overlapping categories:

Remarried Supporter. A large percentage of deadbeat dads are remarried and are supporting several step-children or biological children from a second marriage.

Often this family is poorer than the household of his ex-wife, who may have married a more successful breadwinner. It is also common for the ex-wife of a deadbeat dad to have remarried another deadbeat dad, who is supporting her and her children.

Men in Poverty. Many deadbeat dads are homeless, and an even greater percentage are poor. Because the calculation of a woman's income excludes many of the social welfare benefits she receives, the statistical picture of women in poverty is highly misleading. Not only are many deadbeat dads destitute, it is often their failures as providers which led their ex-wives to divorce them. I prosecuted one deadbeat dad who had been hospitalized for malnutrition and another who lived in the bed of a pick-up truck.

Many times I prosecuted impoverished men on behalf of ex-wives who had remarried successful men and were living in comfortable conditions.

Fathers Helping Mothers. Men who provide non-monetary support are deadbeat dads according to the child-support system. Mothers and fathers often work out agreements for child support that involve dad fixing the car, buying groceries, baby-sitting the children, or getting clothes for the children.

These men may be unemployed, but they want to help their children. Sometimes they are concerned that monetary support doesn't benefit the children, but the mother's newest boyfriend - or that it goes to buy drugs or alcohol. None of the non-monetary support counts, even if the mother and father want it to count and even if they agree in writing that it should count.

Fathers Paying Child Support. Child support is "paid" only when it's paid in a bureaucratically acceptable form. In a child-support program, the jargon for other means of payment is a "shoe box full of receipts" - which means a father who was paying his support, but not through court or the program.

I had thousands of these cases. In one, the mother signed an affidavit that the dad had never paid. But when confronted with receipts acknowledged that he had always paid support. Why would she do that? She was on welfare; her child support became the property of the state and federal government. If she keeps the child support, it is welfare fraud.

Why would concerned fathers pay child support directly to the mother? The bookkeeping in child support offices is atrocious. The mother could be confused with another woman or the paying father with another man.

Men with actual custody. Yes, even men who are raising in their homes the very children for whom child support is sought are deadbeat dads. If a court order says that the mother has custody and is entitled to child support, and if the mother gives the father the children because she cannot control them or has other problems, then he is still liable for child support.

Most of the fathers I prosecuted said that they would raise their children with no help from the government and with no help from mom, if given the chance.

Men who can't find their children. Even the inability to find children to support is no excuse. The mother may leave the state with their young children and not tell the father where she is for five years. The child-support system can, and does, go in and collect five years of delinquent child support from this deadbeat dad. In some cases, of course, the mother has a very good reason because of domestic abuse, but in other cases it is the father's allegations of child abuse by the mother which prompt her to run.

Fathers who love their kids, but won't work for them. This is different, of course, from mothers on welfare who won't support their kids. The former are creeps and the latter are victims of society. The sad fact, however, is that children have precisely one set of parents, and if the parents can provide emotional support, that is at least as valuable as economic support. Many deadbeat dads love their children just as much as the mothers on public assistance who don't support their children either. The social costs of driving dad into another state or putting him in jail are seldom considered in the calculus of child-support enforcement benefits.

Child-support resistors. Let's take the case of the "worst deadbeat dad in the country." He fit none of the above categories. He had money; he knew where his children were; he had no excuse. And he was almost half a million dollars in arrears on child support.

But how much child support was this man ordered to pay each month? $5,000? $10,000? There are middle-class men who are obligated to pay half of their take- home pay as child support. Mandatory child-support guidelines remove from parties and even courts the power to determine what support is fair and reasonable.

The guidelines are based on an "income sharing" model which presumes what the needs of the children are (instead of actually examining the needs of the children). The result? A growing class of men who - on principle - would rather go to jail than pay support.

There are solutions:

*Permit mothers to receive directly and to keep any child support she gets without turning any of it over to the government. This will help families because it will let them keep all the support paid, and it will remove the child-support program with its slow, error-prone distribution of child-support payments.

*Allow courts to consider all the children a man is supporting. It is absurd to ignore the impact of child-support enforcement on step-children and second biological families.

*Let parents reach agreements on support and custody. If the mother feels that dad's willingness to provide day care while she works or goes to school should offset some child support, who does it hurt? If an incorrigible young man needs to live with dad a year to get his life in order, let the parents agree to waive dad's child support.

*Base child support upon the actual needs of the child, not the theoretical needs of a statistical average child. Each situation is different, and it should produce different results.

*Finally, recognize that the primary value of fathers to children is not as "financial objects." If there is one clear need today, it is for fathers to be closer to their children. Fathers are as irreplaceable in the lives of children as mothers. We recognize that mothers who - for whatever reason - do not financially support their children still have a vital role to play in the lives of the children. The same is true of fathers.

*Bruce Walker is executive coordinator at the District Attorney's Council in Oklahoma City, Okla.

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