Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Paternal child support: a personal perspective

by Jordan Bubin

Perhaps it’s not ignorance of a frequent plight of women, and I see how it’s hard to find a solution for this problem—but I feel that the criminal justice system is far too lax with deadbeat fathers. Now, this is a personal observation, based on my own family; I’m not trying to make some empirical argument. (Although a summer of working in the New York City foster care system showed me that my experience is in no way unique.) Also, as another caveat, this isn’t meant to be heterosexist—the problems gay and lesbian couples face in regards to getting child support are numerous, perhaps larger, but entirely different, from what I’ve read, and this is meant to be my own experience, and so is about the problems mothers face when divorcing their husbands.

I could write about plenty of aspects of this system, but let me just point out one for today—the requirement that fathers pay child support to their estranged families seems to me scarcely enforced, or stressed, in our system. My mother finally gained a restraining order against my father on June 21, 2006; in order for her to receive her child support payments without my father knowing her whereabouts, the court set up a bank account into which he was required to make deposits that only my mother could get information on, or make withdrawals.

Now, he was only ordered to pay around a little over $700 a month. That might sound like a lot, but my mother had six mouths to feed—I didn’t count on either the restraining order or the child support bill, as I was over 18, which left my five younger sisters and one younger brother. If you’re doing the math, that counts out to a family of seven living on $8400 a year, or, ostensibly, under $17,000 if you believe that’s a sufficient amount for each parent to be earning. To compare, you’re getting free school lunches if you’re family only counts four and your household income is half that again.

Of course, minimum wage at the time was still $5.15 in Pennsylvania, which works out to about $380 a week after taxes, or $1420 a month. So one could make the claim that $700 a month is an absurd amount for the man to have to pay.

I would disagree. Maybe it’s my own personal experience, but I don’t think you can disavow yourself of responsibility to your children, whether they’re in their house with them or not. Moreover, $700 a month for six children is stupidly low. I spent a summer interning for a family court judge who apparently felt stronger about paternal duties; when a father came in complaining about paying his $800 a month, the judge looked him in the eye and told him he’d better find a second job. $800 a month is pretty standard for two children; $700 for six kids means your lawyer didn’t care. In other words, my father got off easy.

Let me step back from this math lesson for a second. I’m male too, andI’m fully aware of the arguments around—for and against—the duties of parents regarding the children of one night stands, where one parent wants to keep the child and one doesn’t. This is not one of those cases, so in case you’re mentally stockpiling complaints and objections about how this is harsh towards males, put ‘em out of your head. This is about paying—caring—for the kids you’ve created in an abusive marriage where one spouse flees.

My point in this number crunching was to point out that, so far as financial obligations go, he got off easy. Contemplate buying groceries, clothes, school supplies, medicine, and other necessary items on a budget like that for a family of seven. Even so, he still couldn’t cut it—and this is my problem with this system.

When a father doesn’t pay child support, he gets dragged into court for contempt. His spouse, who has made a point of fleeing and is busy trying to hold down her own minimum wage job to make ends meet, has to take a day off—which is not highly recommended, in case you’ve never been in a desperate minimum-wage job—to come to court and report “Yes, Your Honor, he doesn’t pay,” just in case the judge and relevant attorneys couldn’t figure that out themselves from the bank statements. She does have the alternative of not coming to court, which would of course mean hiring a lawyer. Of course, that’s not much of an option for people with no money.

After wasting the woman’s time, they slap the guy on the wrist—i.e., they charge him with contempt of court, and order him to pay the money. This is no different than what he was supposed to be doing before that hearing; it just means that a judge sternly nagged him for a few moments.

Two years of suffering through this idiotic process means that the civil case actually becomes a criminal one. This changes nothing except that the mother does not need to continue coming to court to assure everyone that she is not getting any money.

This picture ought to be rather clear to you by now, and I don’t want to waste your time. Throwing the father in jail does little other than guarantee that the mother will not be getting child support, as it ensures he doesn’t have a job. I don’t have an answer to the problem; it’s not exactly feasible to force someone to get a job that doesn’t pay under the table, or to have the police enforce garnishment of cash wages.

What is rather pathetic, it seems, are the social workers my family’s encountered in this ordeal. There are a few stellar cases, but the key word is few. At one point, my father had missed $6000 in consecutive payments. Eventually, a few hundred dollars arrived. When my mother complained to the pertinent bureaucracy, the worker informed her that my father was “trying,” and that my mother should therefore be grateful.

Social work is demanding, and the turnover rate is atrocious. The requirements to be a social worker are practically nil, and the screening process is in many places laughable. It’s hard to raise the bar for a job that has such little dedicated supply in the first place, but it seems the same problem that public schools face in trying to get good teachers. It seems to me that programs such as Teach For America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, however, are doing what also needs to be done for social work—establishing a way to get dedicated, motivated people into a position to help those in need.

In my own family experience, and after two summers working around families in similar situations, it’s almost uniformly women who are stuck with the burden of caring—alone—for kids after men leave, refuse to pay, or otherwise shirk their moral duties. A system that almost promises them horrid support—emotionally and financially—and offers little sympathy for their plight is not one I have a solution to…but it’s one that, morally, demands one.

(On another note, for anyone who may have been watching the Super Bowl, cheerleaders got exactly one half-second of face time, and that was accidental. I’m sure it may be a rush to cheer at the biggest sporting event in the country, but after last week’s piece, it was pointed out cheerleaders may do it for the fame—but not even in the midst of the cleavage fest that is Super Bowl advertising did cheerleaders get any television time: They only got on-screen when a player ran out of bounds near them.)


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