National Family Justice Association (NFJA)
Position Statement on Proposed Budget Cuts in Child Support Enforcement Program Funding (Nov. 17, 2005)
On October 26, 2005, The Washington Post reported in "Planned GOP Budget Cuts Target Programs Such as Foster Care" by Jonathan Weisman, page A05, that one of the programs targeted for budget cuts is federal aid for state child support enforcement programs.
In general, we support the proposed budget cuts in federal aid for the area of child support enforcement program, with an exception as described below.
We at NFJA believe that the U.S. taxpayers need to know what their federal taxpayers dollars are really paying for when it comes to child support enforcement. Although the child support program is often touted as a huge success that operates smoothly at great efficiency, we believe, based on numerous published news reports, audits, government reports, and other documentation, that some child support agencies nationwide are rife with error, inefficient, and wasteful. We will describe some of this evidence below.
It may seem counter-intuitive that a family group would support these cuts, but we believe the proposed budget cuts to child support enforcement may be helpful for families, including women, men, and children. There is another huge side to this story that is not being adequately told, yet.
NFJA says of course we are for parents supporting their children financially and emotionally, and most parents do so. But, NFJA believes that the main goal for too many child support agencies is revenue generation for the state, not helping children and families. NFJA says in too many cases, it's more like "bureaucrat support" rather than child support.
It is our belief that as the system stands now, millions of families and children suffer, and the taxpayers are paying huge sums of their hard-earned dollars for inaccurate performance and, too frequently, unfair enforcement. Noncustodial parents and custodial parents and their families both suffer. This is not cost-effective for the U.S. taxpayers, in terms of financial or social costs.
We believe there is little effective oversight of this program, so that many citizens who find themselves dragged into an error or questionable practice of a child support agency have little or no recourse to correct it.
With the child support data in disarray, all citizens—even those without children—can be vulnerable to harsh punitive measures, including damaged credit reports, liens on property, seizure of bank accounts or income tax refunds, loss of driver's and professional licenses and passports, and even jail time. It can take months or even years to correct errors. Some errors seem nearly impossible to correct. (Please see examples below).
We believe that many of the errors or questionable practices of child support agencies that we continually hear of are not negligible errors. In too many cases, these are serious errors, some in the thousands of dollars, that can financially or emotionally devastate an individual and his or her family and children, and sometimes the extended family, including grandparents.
We believe that the child support agencies need to be scrutinized and held legally accountable for errors and unfair practices. They need to be as accurate and as fair as a bank and held financially accountable, as are banks.
According to The Washington Post report cited above, the House Ways and Means officials said the federal matching rate for child support enforcement would change
"...from a 66 percent share to a 50 percent share that would be more in line with other federal and state partnerships, saving $3.8 billion through 2010." ...We at the National Family Justice Association (NFJA) support proposed budget cuts in the area of child support program funding. (We are narrowly discussing the proposed budget cuts affecting the child support program only. This statement is not addressing the other proposed cuts.)
NFJA supports the cut in matching fees, as we understand them, but we do not support the proposed $25 annual fee to be taken out of the children's child support, as described in the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) report, "Ways and Means Committee Approves 40 Percent Cut in Child Support Funds" by Vicki Turetsky, 10/25/05, at http://www.clasp.org/publications/child_support_cuts.pdf .
We believe that if these proposed budget cuts lead to much-needed increased accountability, scrutiny of, efficiency, and accuracy on the part of the child support agencies, millions of families nationwide—women, men, and children—will by helped by the cuts, not harmed.
The increased scrutiny and accountability for state child support systems that may come with budget cuts may decrease overzealous efforts or "activities of dubious value in collecting child support" that are now matched at the 66 percent figure with no regard to performance issues.
See House Ways and Means 2004 Green Book, page 8-67 at:
The House Ways and Means Committee 2004 Green Book can also be accessed via:
http://www.gpoaccess.gov/wmprints. See Browse 2004 Green Book - Section 8.
It is our hope that the current increased discussion of proposed federal matching cuts presents a good opportunity to encourage nationally televised public dialogue about the "inefficiencies" and waste of child support enforcement monies, as evidenced by numerous news reports, audits, and the House Ways and Means Committee's own document, the 2004 Green Book PDF file, cited above, which states (p. 8-67):
"The 66 percent Federal reimbursement of State administrative expenditures raises a second issue of program financing: Why is such a large percentage of State expenditures financed without regard to performance? Even if States spend a great deal of money on activities of dubious value in collecting child support, they can nonetheless count on 66 percent reimbursement from the Federal Government. The flat 66 percent reimbursement rate may provide States with an incentive to spend money inefficiently." ...
Is the child support program really "a sound investment"?According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) abstract (at: http://www.clasp.org/NewFromClasp/102605.htm), regarding its report titled, "Ways and Means Committee Approves 40 Percent Cut in Child Support Funds":
... "This brief outlines why the child support program is a sound investment—collecting $4.38 in child support for every public dollar spent ..."We at NFJA ask:
Is the child support program, as it stands today, really a "sound investment"? We believe that it is not. Based on information found in the House Ways and Means Committee 2004 Green Book and discussed below, NFJA questions the finding that every public dollar spent results in the collection of $4.38.
Perhaps what is not mentioned in the above statement is what the child support program costs the U.S. taxpayers at the federal level in total. For example, are the paternity lab reimbursement costs figured in?
A very important table is provided on page 8-66 in the 2004 Green Book titled "Federal and State Share of Child Support 'Savings,' Selected Fiscal Years 1980-2002" that seems to present, in our judgment, what may be information that is not congruent with the idea that the child support program is really a "sound investment." Table is reproduced below.
See the 2004 Green Book, Table 8-5, page 8-66 at:
To us, the Green Book Table 8-5 seems to indicate that every year, the child support program loses a greatly increasing amount of money for the U.S. taxpayers, at least up until 2002.
From our reading of Table 8-5, while some states may make federal money off of the collection of child support, the child support enforcement agency, overall, loses money for the U.S. taxpayers—and apparently, it is a lot of money.
But, even if the trend of greater and greater losses every year for the taxpayers at the federal level has, all of a sudden, surprisingly reversed itself, how does one put a price tag on the social costs to U.S. citizens that we discuss below?
We believe that the serious social costs of the current system still far outweigh the so-called benefits.
To summarize: We believe that the U.S. taxpayers need to know what their taxpayer dollars are really paying for. There is a great deal of documented inefficiency, questionable practices, and errors in the child support system.
Please especially see: "Problems Plague Database" By Linda Gittleman; Morning Sun (June 20, 2005) at http://www.themorningsun.com/stories/062005/loc_database001.shtml
Other important reasons why we do not agree that this is a "sound investment" in terms of financial and social costs follow.
Undistributed, collected child support - also known as UDCUndistributed, collected child support, also known as UDC, is child support money that has been collected by the state child support agencies, but has not been distributed to the children for whom it is intended.
Please see government chart at: http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cse/pubs/2005/reports/preliminary_report/table_9.html
Across the nation, most states are holding millions of dollars in UDC, collected undistributed child support, i.e., the children's money. The existence of this issue is not yet well-known by the general public. There are various reasons why officials say it is being held, such as lack of current addresses for custodial parents, but we believe the amount held is still way too high in many cases. The children and families need this money.
We hear a lot of talk from agency officials about alleged increased child support "collections", but what about accurate and timely disbursement of the child support monies collected? In addition, is the collection of the child support accurate?
We believe that child support agencies should be as accurate and as accountable as banks, but apparently many are not. How much collected child support money will get "stuck in the system" as UDC? Why should the taxpayers have to pay exorbitant operating cost matching funds, or incentives to states that do not distribute the child support collected in a timely or accurate fashion?
Even though some child support officials may say that the amount of undistributed child support is only 1 percent of the total collected in some cases, we say that 1 percent of a very large number is still a very large number. The nearly half a billion dollars held nationwide by states could feed many children and families.
The UDC being held by states according to Table 9 (http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cse/pubs/2005/reports/preliminary_report/) may include child support money owed to families who have been hit by the recent hurricanes. These families could use that money now that is already earmarked for them and is intended for their children.
Furthermore, some states' practice of seizing and holding a child support payor's federal income tax refund for an alleged child support arrearage for 180 days is not acceptable in our opinion. Even though it is said that the state can hold the income tax refund for half a year to give a potential "injured spouse" time to file a claim for their money, it is, in reality, unfairly withholding money from families that could use it for their children and to pay bills.
In addition, it has been suggested that some custodial parents, who are not receiving child support being held as undistributed child support, may be more likely to go on welfare. Some custodial and noncustodial parents may not know that their money is "stuck in the system" and being held as UDC. This certainly is not helping families or taxpayers. Not knowing that money has been paid in to the state agency, but is being held, may also cause the relationship between the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent to deteriorate, thereby negatively affecting the children.
It is also not generally known that some amounts of collected child support go directly to the state as welfare reimbursement—not to the custodial family and children. If custodial parents don't know this, they may erroneously think the noncustodial parent is not paying child support.
If it is not already being done, the accurate disbursement, in addition to accurate and fair "collection," of child support monies, needs to be evaluated and included in the "Program Assessment Rating Tool" (P.A.R.T.) evaluation, which managers use to determine whether a program deserves increased federal funding or not.
For more information regarding P.A.R.T., see:
- UDC - Government Chart: http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cse/pubs/2005/reports/preliminary_report/table_9.html
- The Washington Times - "Child support stuck in system" by Cheryl Wetzstein, July 18, 2004: http://www.washingtontimes.com/specialreport/20040718-120901-6910r.htm
- FoxNews.com article "State-Collected Child Support Not Reaching Beneficiaries" by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, October 3, 2003: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,98973,00.htmlExcerpt:
"Lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to know why nearly $660 million in child support payments collected by states in 2002 never reached the people for whom it was intended." (Oct. 3, 2003)
- Op-ed by Dianna Thompson and Jane Spies published in The Free-Lance Star, 12/8/00, "Bumbling child-support agencies brand good fathers 'deadbeats'": http://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/12-08-2000.html
In some cases, states can deem collected child support that is not distributed to the custodial family and children as "unclaimed or abandoned property" and escheat or send it to the state treasury or general fund.The practice of undistributed child support money being deemed "unclaimed or abandoned property" and escheated to the state treasury is also ripe for discussion and positive change. In Michigan, we believe if money is held for only one year, it can be labeled unclaimed.
This is the children's money that is being taken by the state. As stated in the following article, and we're paraphrasing, states should not profit or be rewarded by their own inefficiency in distributing collected child support money to the children.
See The Detroit News: "State keeps kids' money Unclaimed funds fail to make way to parents" by Kim Kozlowski and Gary Heinlein, May 29, 2001: http://www.detnews.com/specialreports/2001/friend/tues0529a/tues0529a.htm
Errors in Collections, i.e., money that should not have been collected.We don't believe that U.S. taxpayers want their hard-earned tax dollars to go to cases like the following where child support enforcement erroneously tried to collect child support from an aggrieved father, Robert Levine, after his 14-year-old son suddenly died.
This father had been paying child support and had notified the city of his son's tragic passing. Nevertheless, it is shocking and tragic that, after his son's death, this father's bank account was frozen by the child support agency for an alleged child support delinquency regarding his son, according to the WABC-New York, ABC7 news report, "Seven on Your Side Helps a Grieving Father", by Tappy Phillips, (9/28/05).
The WABC report said an agency official called Mr. Levine and threatened to revoke this bereaved father's driver's license for not paying even after he repeatedly sent his beloved son's death certificate to child support enforcement to inform them. Loss of his driver's license would have been particularly bad for this grieving dad and his family because he makes his livelihood driving a truck. The agency told this dad he owes $2,500. Fortunately, WABC helped him to finally resolve the issue.
The news report said the agency told them it was "a straight bureaucratic bungle." According to WABC-New York, the agency also told them "the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."
We at NFJA are concerned that the latter statement applies to many child support agencies nationwide, not solely New York. (See the full WABC story at: http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=7on_your_side&id=3486134 ).
WABC New York, ABC7 "Seven On Your Side" also reported the story of Jose Torres, (6/27/05 at http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=7on_your_side&id=3198098 ), "Seven on Your Side Does Double Duty for a Dad."
Mr. Torres contacted the station when, according to the report, he "...got wrongly accused of being a deadbeat dad." WABC helped Mr. Torres to get his "credit score restored and his debt cleared", but 2 months later, Mr. Torres discovered that his paycheck was garnished for nearly $400.
It turns out that Jose Torres has the same first and last name, but a different middle initial, of someone who allegedly owes child support. The news report said that although New Jersey child support enforcement had corrected the error in their system, a "federal database of deadbeat dads hadn't been changed." WABC helped him, for the second time, to fix the error.
It is our concern, that with the data in such apparent disarray, all citizens - like Mr. Levine and Mr. Torres above - are vulnerable to agency errors and/or questionable practices—even adults without children. Errors can result in harsh punitive measures that may target innocent individuals.
WABC and Tappy Phillips of "Seven on Your Side" deserve kudos for their investigations and their help for those affected. We hope that they and others continue to shine the light on what is really happening in the child support system as it currently stands.
As shocking and tragic as the cases above are, we believe that there are many more cases that are appalling and unfair. In some cases, the U.S. taxpayers are paying for the agencies' attempts to collect from deceased people. For example:
- KETV.com "Child Support From Dead Man? State Tries To Collect Child Support From Dead Man's Wife" (Feb. 18, 2005) at: http://www.theomahachannel.com/family/4213430/detail.html
- And from Michigan: "Officials struggle to track dead-beat parents Each investigator may have as many as 1,500 cases of parents who don't pay support" by Richard Harrold; The Holland Sentinel Online (August 8, 2004).Excerpt:
... "The letter indicated that because her ex-husband Roger Hamrick hadn't paid his child support as agreed, he had racked up a debt of $35,605.80. In an attempt to encourage Hamrick's prompt payment, the Friend of the Court wanted to publish his name in a newspaper as a dead-beat parent.Trouble was, Glover's ex-husband was more than a dead-beat parent -- he was dead." ...
For years, we have heard horror stories and read news reports about the poor functioning of the child support enforcement system.
For example, despite his and his wife Shelly's repeated protests over a period of 5 years that there was no child, Steve Barreras was forced by the system to pay child support to the tune of about $20,000 for 5 years for a child who a judge finally declared non-existent.
We believe this case is just the tip of the iceberg. For the full story and compelling news video, see KOBTV.com's "Judge: 'There is no child'" at:
Questionable Practices of Child Support Agencies Can Lead to Dire Outcomes for Families and ChildrenOne only needs to read the Lansing State Journal story of "Assault on support deadbeats hits wrong target" to see how overzealousness can lead to dire circumstances for innocent citizens. See: http://www.lsj.com/xtras/childsupport/030501john_1b.html
For example, according to the Lansing State Journal (5/1/03), "Schneider: Assault on support deadbeats hits a wrong target," one Michigan man was arrested at work, in full view of his co-workers, handcuffed, and taken away in a police cruiser. He was the wrong man. He did not owe child support. How did the police find him? His co-worker thought he/she saw his name in a newspaper "deadbeat list" and reported him to the authorities.
Publishing lists of alleged "child support delinquents" is ill-advised, to say the least. Reports show that innocent parents are possibly being defamed, mistakes are made, and children of the named parents may be embarrassed or feel guilty. See "Attempt to shame deadbeats visited upon the children" The Roanoke Times, Oct. 4, 2005 letter, at: http://www.roanoke.com/editorials/letters/wb/34738
One agency got it right. According to Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/xtras/childsupport/supportsearch.html:
"The Clinton County Friend of the Court has refused to cooperate with the State Journal's request, saying that publishing such a list would embarrass the children of the parents named."
It bears repeating that we believe that with a child support system in such apparent disarray, all citizens are vulnerable to agency errors or questionable practices. Many errors are difficult to correct. It can take months or sometimes years to do so, if ever.
How much of the reported increased collections of child support by agencies may be money collected in error?
See The Detroit News March 7, 2004 article, "Michigan glitches snarl child support Snags in state's $459 million system don't give dads credit, leave kids without money" by Gary Heinlein and Kim Kozlowski, at:
"The state's child support distribution system lists Ken Machus Jr. as owing $38,000 in back child support, even though $222.86 is deducted from his paycheck each week and sent to his ex-wife" (The Detroit News, 3/7/04)
In some cases, we believe that the collected child support may be ill-gotten money, perhaps from grandparents spending their nest egg trying to keep their loved one out of jail for an alleged child support arrearage that may not even be accurate. How many of these extended or immediate family members will then end up on the welfare rolls?
Furthermore, we believe that the taxpayers should not have to pay for such inefficiency on the part of the agencies. A few astonishing, but not unusual, examples follow.
- A KOAA-TV, Colorado report of Nov. 10, 2005 "News First Investigates child support payments" is a recent and astonishing example of many of the problems we are presenting in this paper, including unfair, disrespectful treatment of child support payers. For the full KOAA-TV report and news video, see http://www.koaa.com/news/view.asp?ID=4220According to the KOAA-TV report:
"A local military airplane mechanic says he was treated like a criminal for not paying child support, when in fact, he never missed a payment."
- Cases of paternity fraud, where men who are not fathers, and can prove it through DNA testing, are nevertheless forced to pay child support for other men's children, or face jail time. See NFJA press release at: http://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/07-19-2004.html.
- See compelling video of public testimony, at a California Senate Judiciary hearing, of a former military woman whose husband, a former military man, is a victim of paternity fraud. This mother explains the situation of "2 adjudicated fathers" paying child support for the same child: http://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/2orders-lo.wmv
- See a recent Missouri state audit, August 2005, which indicated that millions of dollars in collected child support had not been distributed properly to the children: http://auditor.mo.gov/press/2005-56.pdf This audit shows that there is ample room for potential and actual errors at the expense of families and taxpayers.
- Also see: http://www.belleville.com/mld/belleville/news/local/12447063.htm: "Audit finds millions in child support not being distributed" by Kelly Wiese, August 22, 2005, Associated Press.
- In 2000, in Louisiana, a list meant to shame alleged "deadbeat parents" was published. According to The Times Picayune article, ... "On the first day, 264 parents were removed from the list because they had paid up." ... "This publication is four months behind schedule, because, we are told, of 'computer glitches.'" See The Times Picayune; "How much money can cyber-shame generate?" by James Gill; April 30, 2000.
- See the NFJA Michigan open letter, which addresses child support agency problems at: http://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/03-03-2004.html
- See abc7news.com KGO-TV/DT (California) article, "Child Support Services Mistake Man For Deadbeat Dad: Asked To Pay Child Support Four Times In Seven Years", http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=i_team&id=3355189
- Op-ed by Murray Davis and Dianna Thompson, The Detroit News, 3/28/04: "First correct problems in Michigan's system to ensure the state doesn't target innocent parents" at: http://www.detnews.com/2004/editorial/0403/28/a19-105082.htm
- "Tech glitches plague child-support agency" by Jim Dooley, The Honolulu Advertiser, April 11, 2005: http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2005/Apr/11/ln/ln05p.html
- According to The Flint Journal, February 27, 2005, "Time to check, correct your credit reports" by Melissa Burden:
..."A national survey of 200 adults released last summer by the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan found that 25 percent of credit reports contain errors serious enough to cause consumers to be denied credit, a mortgage, an apartment or job.Gantos, 39, found several errors on her credit reports, including one for unpaid child support.
'I've never had a child,' said Gantos, a lawyer." ...
- Also see: Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) report, September, 2002: "If You Don't Know There's a Problem, How Can You Find a Solution? The Need for Notice and Hearing Rights in Child Support Distribution Cases", by Paula Roberts at:http://www.clasp.org/publications/Due_Process.pdf
"Problems Plague Database"There are excellent news articles, like the aforementioned reports, that expose the truth about the inadequacies of the system, yet in many cases, program officials still tout their program as a great success which deserves more and more federal funding.
Sometimes officials or policymakers agree there are problems in the system, but, astonishingly, harsh punitive measures against parents and other questionable practices may still be used, despite known errors or problems with data in the system.
Similar news articles that describe a glitch or problem appear routinely. It is clearly time that we as a society face this problem and correct it. How can some child support officials know about the problems, yet still request more and more taxpayer money without addressing performance issues?
We hope that the media will continue to delve deeply into this issue. We believe that there is more than enough evidence, through published news reports alone, to at least begin increased oversight and scrutiny of the child support program.
- Please see, especially regarding federal monies: "Problems plague database" by Linda Gittleman, Morning Sun (June 20, 2005) at http://www.themorningsun.com/stories/062005/loc_database001.shtmlExcerpt from Morning Sun article:
"Despite claims that the state's centralized computerized data collecting and payment system for the counties' Friend of the Court will one day prove a 'magnificent tool,' it's the waiting for that eventual day that's troublesome." ...
- And please also see "AG's name appears on deadbeat parents list, but AG says he does not owe" by Steve Limtiaco; Pacific Daily News, dated November 15, 2005, at: http://www.guampdn.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051115/NEWS01/51115002/1002Excerpts follow:
... "Yes, that's the attorney general's name on the delinquent child support list his office published today, but, no, he does not owe child support, Attorney General Douglas Moylan said." ...and:
... "Moylan said his office has been flooded with calls today from residents who believe they are improperly listed or who want to start paying child support so their name can be removed from the list." ...
- Also see the following article dated November 16, 2005 for another example of how innocent parents may be targeted by inaccurate child support enforcement punitive measures. The article is about a list, published in the newspaper, of parents who are allegedly delinquent in paying child support:
"Parents complain about list
List also names parents paying child support on time" by Steve Limtiaco;
Pacific Daily News (11/16/05)See the full article at: http://www.guampdn.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051116/NEWS01/511160318/1002
- See the "Michigan Open Letter" by the National Family Justice Association at: http://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/03-03-2004.html
..."Even if States spend a great deal of money on activities of dubious value in collecting child support, they can nonetheless count on 66 percent reimbursement from the Federal Government." ...
|—House Ways and Means Committee 2004 Green Book,
Page 8-67, PDF file
"The 66 percent Federal reimbursement of State administrative expenditures raises a second issue of program financing: Why is such a large percentage of State expenditures financed without regard to performance? Even if States spend a great deal of money on activities of dubious value in collecting child support, they can nonetheless count on 66 percent reimbursement from the Federal Government. The flat 66 percent reimbursement rate may provide States with an incentive to spend money inefficiently." ...
—Page 8-67 at: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=108_green_book&docid=f:wm006_08.pdf
We agree with the passages in the 2004 Green Book that the lack of accountability does indeed promote inefficiency, and some families and children suffer profoundly as a result.
Even though states may say they are making money via their child support collection programs, what is it costing the U.S. taxpayers at the federal level? And, how much of the millions of dollars "collected" as child support referred to in the CLASP report is being funded by the U.S. taxpayers unnecessarily?
Welfare and non-welfare cases alike are being taken into the child support enforcement system. In some cases, now the U.S. taxpayer must pay for "child support collection" that was already taking place for free and voluntarily between the 2 separated parents who may prefer to opt out or never enter the state child support enforcement system at all.
We believe there are cases where the 2 separated parents were already in agreement, and have worked out a solution privately for their own families for paying child support voluntarily, outside of the formal child support enforcement system. Why should the U.S. taxpayers have to pay for agencies to collect child support between 2 fit and loving parents who have already agreed to their own private arrangement for taking care of their own children as they see fit?
In other words, in some cases, if parents are forced into the state child support enforcement system, instead of child support "collection" happening voluntarily at no charge to the taxpayers, now the taxpayers must pay unnecessarily for something that was already occurring at no charge to them.
This is not fair to the U.S. taxpayers, and, in our opinion, is not a cost-effective "investment" for them.
Perhaps the proposed federal matching fund cuts to the child support enforcement program will encourage more accountability, accuracy, and efficiency in the system.
After all, the child support agencies should be as accurate as banks. We don't believe they are, as they currently stand. We believe they should be legally accountable for any errors or questionable practices, as are banks. Over the years, we continue to hear of many egregious errors that adversely affect the lives of good parents and their families.
Instead of a knee-jerk reaction that the proposed child support enforcement program funding cuts will be harmful, we need frank national discussion and an airing of the other side of the issue. We need objectivity and an honest logical discussion that puts politics aside.
This issue should be framed as an issue of compassion for families, noncustodial and custodial, and extended families including grandmothers and grandfathers, etc., because that is what it really is. It is really about the unnecessary suffering of millions of noncustodial moms and dads, and custodial moms and dads, and their extended families and children. This is a problem that can be fixed.
This issue also has to do with accountability, personal responsibility for errors and questionable practices, waste of government U.S. tax dollars, and cost-effectiveness. It is an issue of "justice vs. injustice."
There is now discussion about reforming the practice of government keeping some child support monies paid to reimburse welfare costs rather than distributing the child support directly to the custodial family and children.
A September 2005 Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) policy brief by Vicki Turetsky titled, "In Everybody's Best Interests: Why Reforming Child Support Distribution Makes Sense for Government and Families," states:
... "A growing body of research about low-income fathers has reinforced the view that distribution rules interfere with the relationships between parents and their children and create unrealistic expectations about the financial ability of low-income fathers to repay welfare benefits." ...CLASP reports that ..."More than $2 billion per year is currently withheld by the government to reimburse welfare costs. This money could be going to families." ... (Page 7, CLASP Policy Brief, 9/05)
—Page 6, CLASP Policy Brief, 9/05,
Is the alleged child support arrearage really collectible? Is child support enforcement chasing after phantom dollars at the taxpayers' expense?The phenomenon of "deadbroke parents" is well-recognized. Especially in light of soaring costs of gasoline, food, heating, prescription medications, while wages stay stagnant or decrease, is it possible that some parents and families, custodial and noncustodial, are just suffering under adverse economic conditions through no fault of their own? We say yes.
From The New York Times (2/19/05; "When Child Support Is Due, Even the Poor Find Little Mercy" by Leslie Kaufman):
..."Around the country, child support arrears have been piling up at a staggering rate since the enactment of these laws. A decade ago the federal government said fathers owed $31 billion in back child support; as of 2003, the last year for which data was available, the total had more than triple that to reach $96 billion. Changes in reporting may account for a portion of the increase.About 70 percent of the debt is owed by men who earn $10,000 a year or less, or have no recorded wage earnings at all, according to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Less than 4 percent is owed by men with incomes of more than $40,000." ...So, the above passage begs the question: What is the likelihood that the alleged arrearages are actually collectible?
Could this be one of the reasons why throwing more money at the "problem" and increasing punitive measures against alleged so-called "deadbeat parents" isn't "working?"
After years of billions of taxpayer dollars being funneled into child support enforcement, one might think the so-called "problem" would be solved, yet some officials say delinquencies are up. Their solution? Throw even more taxpayer money at the "problem."
Another question needs to be asked:
What portion of the arrearage is actually interest or surcharges that have been added on to alleged child support "arrearages"?
See CLASP report of Oct. 6, 2005 for more information: http://www.clasp.org/publications/strategies_for_child_support_arrears.pdf
Society holds noncustodial parents, most of whom are fathers, to an unattainable standard...
"Some say that alleged "deadbeat parents" have the money to pay child support - they just willfully choose not to pay. Research shows the major reason some men don't pay is that they can't pay. This is usually due to unemployment, illness, or disability.Society holds non-custodial parents, mostly fathers, to an unattainable standard to never become physically or mentally ill, never get disabled, and to never lose a job or get laid off in a poor economy."
—Op-ed 10/26/03 by Dianna Thompson and Murray Davis, "Child support system doesn't give parents a chance: Rather than shame for pressed parents, how about help?", published in the Lansing State Journal. Seehttp://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/10-26-2003.html
There is a definite double standard being applied when it comes to non-intact families.
Somehow, if an intact family with children suffers a loss over which they have no control—such as the aftermath of a hurricane, a layoff or illness of a primary breadwinner, unemployment, soaring costs of heating, food, and gasoline—they are given empathy and sometimes even help. This is as it should be. The intact family copes by cutting back on expenditures, and the extended family may pitch in financially to help.
No child support enforcement official in this "intact family situation", where both parents are living with their children, is running a tab on the dad's "overdue child support payment to his intact family child", and saying something to the effect of:
"Okay, Dad, we're running a tab and now you are $500 behind in child support to your child who lives with you, $1000 behind, and now maybe we'll lift your driver's license, or place derogatory information on your credit report; $2500? $5000 behind? We can lift your passport, professional license, and perhaps now you can become a felon and are going to jail, etc."Of course, this wouldn't happen, and this is also as it should be. Any clear-thinking person can see that treating the intact family breadwinner this way would be absurd and cruel. Holding people personally responsible for circumstances beyond any human being's control makes no sense, is unjust, and of course will fail.
But, this is frequently what happens to non-intact families with children who are thrown into dire financial situations as a result of circumstances like illness, disabilities, layoffs, etc., over which they have absolutely no control.
Too many noncustodial mothers and fathers and their children and extended families find themselves living under a threatening cloud of unfair enforcement against them for circumstances—like layoffs, unemployment, or illness—over which they have no personal control.
Until we as a society recognize that there is an unfair and oppressive double standard being applied against noncustodial mothers and fathers and their children and families, in comparison with the standard that is applied to intact family moms and dads, we will not be able to fix this problem.
Also adding to the unfairness is the well-known problem that it is very difficult for noncustodial parents to get timely downward modifications of their child support when circumstances befall them that affect their ability to keep up with their child support payments. It has been reported that only a small percentage can get appropriate downward modifications. Then child support arrearages can pile up very quickly, with interest, in some states.
Sometimes income that is not actually being earned by the noncustodial parent is imputed to the noncustodial parent, and the child support order is based on that.
One example of a double standard follows:
Why is it acceptable that in some states, noncustodial parents can be forced to pay for college, while intact families are not subject to the same standard and are free to decide what they think is best for their own families? We believe both types of families should be able to freely decide this for themselves. This is just one question to examine.
Why the system, as it stands, is failing:In summary, a system that seeks to stigmatize and "socially ostracize" citizens and hold them personally responsible for circumstances beyond any human's control that can and do befall good people every day, is simply unjust and likely to fail. (See the 2004 Green Book, page 8-68, for a discussion of the concept of "social ostracism" of parents who "avoid" making child support payments.)
Why should taxpayers continue to pay for a child support program that, according to some figures (see Table 8-5 on page 8-66), is costing them more and more money every year? There are mentions that some defenders of the current child support program say there may be social benefits, and references to the idea that child support enforcement may be viewed as a "social investment." (page 8-69).
An excerpt from page 8-68 of the 2004 Green Book follows:
..."Even more to the point, a strong child support program may change the way society thinks about child support. As in the cases of civil rights and smoking, a persistent effort over a period of years may convince millions of Americans, both those who owe child support and those concerned with the condition of single-parent families, that making payments is a moral and civic duty. Those who avoid it would then be subject to something even more potent than legal prosecution--social ostracism." (2004 Green Book, page 8-68).One reason why we believe that "cost-avoidance" (see page 8-68 in the 2004 Green Book) and "social ostracism" concepts won't "work" is because each example given in the above Green Book passage - that is, civil rights and smoking - has some element of control or personal responsibility over one's choice to engage in, or not engage in, a specific behavior.
For example, one can voluntarily choose whether or not to smoke cigarettes. In contrast, one cannot choose to avoid layoffs, poor economic conditions, illness or disability, avoid the aftermath of hurricanes, or avoid one's job being downsized or outsourced and being unable to find a comparable job that pays equally.
Furthermore, it is well-known that downward modifications of child support, in cases such as the above, can be almost impossible to get or to get in a timely fashion. By the time a child support payer can get a fair adjustment - if he can - he may be deep in "debt." To expect human beings to be held to this unattainable standard is unfair, to say the least. Depite its unfairness, it is being done every day, and families suffer as a result.
Now we are beginning to see Louisiana's latest crackdown on alleged "deadbeat parents." See the KLFY report, "Vermilion Parish Focusing on Parents Who Don't Support Their Children", Nov. 7, 2005, at http://www.klfy.com/Global/story.asp?S=4085957
Somehow, we knew this was coming. How many of these alleged "deadbeat parents" that are being targeted and threatened with having their names publicized, apparently to shame them, are victims of hurricane Katrina or Rita? Obviously, hurricanes do not spare noncustodial parents. They suffer from the aftermath of hurricanes, also, tragically, just as everyone else does. It is sad that this obvious statement even needs to be said. Where is the compassion for all victims of Katrina and Rita and other hurricanes? Where is common sense?
Fortunately, it seems that in the Louisiana legislature there is some real compassion and help for hurricane victims who pay child support.
From the news report by The Associated Press, The Times-Picayune, 11/8/05, "Notes from the Louisiana Legislature", http://www.nola.com/newsflash/louisiana/index.ssf?/base/news-21/113148835584890.xml&storylist=louisiana:
"The House Civil Law Committee approved a bill (House Bill 104) aimed at helping parents whose ability to make child support payments was jeopardized by evacuation or a lack of jobs in the hurricane area."This understanding and good sense is to be commended, but someone needs to inform officials quoted in the above story about this common-sense, positive development before poor noncustodial parents and their families and children suffer more by being targeted by unfair enforcement.
It's clear to see that many of the parents who don't pay full child support are "deadbroke" not "deadbeat." Most are not willfully refusing to comply. Of course some parents are willfully noncompliant, but research shows they are not in the majority. We are not addressing these parents here.
We frequently hear of the disrespectful way some noncustodial parents and their family members are treated when they speak with some employees of the child support enforcement office.
A KOAA-TV, Colorado report of Nov. 10, 2005 (also cited above), "News First Investigates child support payments" is a recent and astonishing example of many of the problems we are presenting in this paper, including unfair, disrespectful treatment of child support payers. (For the full KOAA-TV report and news video see http://www.koaa.com/news/view.asp?ID=4220).
According to the KOAA-TV report: "A local military airplane mechanic says he was treated like a criminal for not paying child support, when in fact, he never missed a payment."
Some child support collections officers or personnel may believe they are doing a good job by treating the alleged child support "scofflaws" and their families harshly, but we believe that many employees are sometimes misguided or do not have full information. "Social ostracism" of parents who are innocent or simply down on their luck, deadbroke, or poor, is simply wrong.
For example, an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times series, Oct. 11, 1998, "Failure to Provide" by Greg Krikorian and Nicholas Riccardi, references child support enforcement issues in L.A. County:
... "District attorney's employees complain that, because the system is built on money and statistics, there is little room for compassion.
This has prompted some workers to quit in disgust.
"I just couldn't stand what they were doing to people," said ex-Deputy Dist. Atty. Elisa Baker, who resigned in 1995 and now, with another former prosecutor, runs a paralegal service for indebted parents.
"I got a call from a homeless shelter and was told that I had put a man and . . . his four children out on the street because I had put an enforcement order . . . for 50% of his income. I was devastated," Baker recalled. "That was the beginning of the end for me, because I think that was the first time I was in touch with the ramifications of what I was doing."
Revenue generation vs. money for children and familiesWe believe that many child support officials view child support enforcement as a revenue-generating agency, although they repeatedly say to the public that the main goal of their enforcement efforts is to get money to children. (This view also neglects to mention that a large portion of collected child support goes to the state as welfare reimbursement—not directly to the children and families.).
A statement from page 6 of the September, 2005 Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) policy brief, mentioned above, states that:
... "In the final analysis, using child support to recover welfare costs was the wrong turn for the child support program. The program's ability to generate state revenues has been highly popular with lawmakers. However, the belief that the child support program should be a money-maker for states, rather than a program to help families, led to chronic under-investment in and under-performance of the program. In many states, the child support program was expected to make a profit. Revenue generation dictated program priorities, not performance." ...Our question:
Has the child support program's chronic "under-performance" led to errors and questionable practices that are now adversely affecting millions of families nationwide? We believe it has.
Furthermore, the general public would never accept even a 1 percent error rate for banks, so why should the public be expected to accept it for some child support enforcement agencies?
This is especially true in light of the fact that errors by banks don't lead to jail time for customers, but errors in the child support agencies can lead to jail time and other serious punitive measures for payers of child support.
The system needs fixing, but the first step toward positive change is awareness and acknowledgment of the problems. It's time to look at the other side of the issue.
Are we "robbing Peter to pay Paul?"Many of the noncustodial parents and their families are in equally as dire financial straits as the custodial parents and their families.
We at NFJA have some additional questions:
When studies are done showing that custodial parents and children are more likely to go off of the welfare rolls when they receive child support payments, are the researchers looking at the effects on the noncustodial parent family of transferring the child support money to the custodial household?
What are the effects of perhaps an unrealistic child support standard on the noncustodial family and his or her children of his second marriage, as well as his or her children of the first marriage? Is the noncustodial parent family—and their extended family—now thrown into poverty, and some on to welfare, due to being held to an unattainable standard?
It is known that sometimes the extended family will try to pay the alleged child support arrearages to help their loved one who is said to owe support. Does this not adversely affect the financial stability of the extended family?
Just because some suggest that child support money may almost magically appear when a parent is threatened with jail or other punitive measures doesn't make it right to do so. In some cases, this is ill-gotten money, perhaps coming from elderly parents using their nest egg. What is the real social cost of this practice?
See the following quote from Lansing State Journal, 10/12/03, "Deadbeats: Continued pressure yields payments" by Adam Emerson, http://www.lsj.com/news/local/031012_childsupport_1a.html:
... "Another problem with the system, some say, is that once parents have paid part of their debt to avoid jail, families often struggle to get the rest." ...And see the following article by Ted Wendling from The Plain Dealer, Oct. 6, 2005, titled "Statewide sweep hauls in child-support scofflaws", where a child support payer's mother paid $6,000 to free her son from jail. See:http://www.cleveland.com/news/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/news/112859119081470.xml&coll=2
In other words, are we robbing Peter to pay Paul? If so, the possible positive effects regarding custodial households leaving welfare rolls may be canceled out by the potential negative effects on the noncustodial household—who may be forced to go on welfare.
This question and others need to be examined looking at "both sides of the equation"—custodial and noncustodial.
Furthermore, it should be recognized that if the noncustodial family is thrown into poverty by unfair or unrealistic child support guidelines or enforcement, then when the custodial household children "visit" their noncustodial parent at his or her home, the children are there still "in poverty."
Please see these excellent reports from CFFPP, The Center for Family Policy and Practice:
- "The Effect of Child Support and Criminal Justice Systems on Low-Income Noncustodial Parents When You Need a Safety Net, but There's Only a Dragnet", June 2004, Rebecca May: http://www.cffpp.org/publications/effect_child.html
- "A Look at Arrests of Low-Income Fathers for Child Support Nonpayment
Enforcement, Court and Program Practices", January 2005, by Rebecca May and Marguerite Roulet: http://www.cffpp.org/publications/pdfs/noncompliance.pdf
The well-being and stability of families, children, individuals, and U.S. taxpayers should be first priority. Throwing more U.S. taxpayer money at the "problem" will not work.Let's face reality. A system whose aim, too often, is revenue generation over the well-being of families, and is based upon a faulty and false premise that parents' noncompliance with child support payments is always willful, is bound to fail. This is exactly what we are seeing. It's no surprise. What is surprising is seeing statements like the following:
According to an article in The Roanoke Times, "Hunt for Money" (Sept. 29, 2005) by Jen McCaffery, at http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/wb/xp-34122, Nick Young, director of the Division of Child Support Enforcement in Virginia, refers to Virginia's efforts to apparently shame parents into paying their child support. An ad was placed in The Roanoke Times. According to the news report,
"The ad features 45 men and seven women who have failed to appear in court or pay child support ..."And from the same article:
"Young said the idea is not to humiliate people, but the shock-value strategy is necessary because the problem of parents who are delinquent with their child support payments is getting worse."And, also from The Roanoke Times news report:
... "In Roanoke and Roanoke County alone, there are about 10,000 non-custodial parents, Young said.About half of them are delinquent in child-support payments. Child Support Enforcement's caseload in Roanoke and Roanoke County consists of 14,382 children, Young said." ...So, according to the news report, apparently half of the 10,000 non-custodial parents are said to be delinquent in their child support payments. This is astonishing. Why so many? There is something wrong with this picture.
Isn't it time we look at a system that seems to create unattainable standards that fit, loving parents just can't keep up with? We believe that in most cases, it is not the parents who need to be "fixed"; it is the broken system that needs to be fixed.
Most parents love their children and want to support them, and do support them, financially and emotionally. Let parents and families cope with adverse economic circumstances that may exist, and most of them will succeed, and the children will continue to thrive. Some will succeed through voluntary help from their families, friends, and communities.
Let's stop treating all parents as potential "child support scofflaws"—as "guilty until proven innocent." In the majority of cases, the heavy hand of unfair or inaccurate child support enforcement is hurting families and children, not helping them. If left to cope with adversity the best they can without unnecessary or unfair intrusion, most families will find a way to cope, and the children will still prosper.
To repeat, especially in light of soaring costs of gasoline, food, heating, prescription medications, while wages stay stagnant or decrease, is it possible that some people and families are just suffering under adverse economic conditions through no fault of their own? We say yes.
After nearly 10 years and billions of U.S. taxpayers dollars being thrown at the so-called child support "problem," one would think that there would be "improvement." But we are treating the wrong problem. Fix the system; not the people.
Here is another example of how the system needs fixing - not the parent.
A news report by TheIndyChannel.com, RTV 6 Indianapolis Nov. 9, 2005, titled, "Man: I Finished Child-Support Payments, But State Sought More" told the story of a father who thought he had finished paying his child support obligation, until his employer was informed by the state that this dad still was said to owe $48,000. The TV station, RTV 6, helped this father to correct the situation. See the full story at: http://www.theindychannel.com/call6/5289113/detail.html.
Fortunately, the media again came to the aid of an innocent parent.
What is the solution?It's time for a nonpartisan national discussion of child support that puts the interests of families, children, and the taxpayers first. Common sense without political rhetoric and with true compassion and concern is what is needed.
The proposed budget cut for the under-performing child support enforcement program is a step in the right direction. Nationally televised hearings—perhaps Congressional oversight hearings—covering problems within the agencies are needed. Real solutions that will be properly evaluated by objective evaluators are desired.
Positive reform and accountability of this expensive, big-government, failing system is long overdue.
Let's take this opportunity to offer real relief for the suffering of families. Children, families, women, men, and the U.S taxpayers will be the real beneficiaries of this. Family stability will increase, and society will prosper.
The solution is first to become aware of the problem at a national level. Then, seek out real solutions based on facts, not opinions. The best experts and laypersons, including those who represent both custodial and noncustodial viewpoints, should work on this, and their proposed solutions must be evaluated in terms of cost-effectiveness for taxpayers and possible alleviation of social costs for society.
We need a good answer to the question of—what are the real financial and social costs of disarray and errors in the system?
Child support is both financial and emotional. Parents who see their children pay their support. Equal parenting and both fit parents' ability and fundamental right to raise and emotionally and financially support their children, without unfair or unnecessary state intrusion into the private realm of family, must be upheld.
We must remember that fathers love their children equally as much as mothers do. Children need and love their fathers equally as much as they need and love their mothers. Children need both parents.
Merely returning to this simple truth will greatly increase the stability and well-being of families. Children will thrive. Our national policies must encourage this—not thwart this.
We love America. We believe that when the truth about the child support enforcement system is known by the general public, positive change will begin for all families. We are optimistic and we believe that our great and beautiful country can, and will, find a fair solution to fix this situation for all of our citizens - especially for the children.
Important passages from the 2004 Green Book:
|"... the child support program loses more and more money every year. ..."|
|—excerpt: House Ways and Means Committee 2004 Green Book,
Page 8-67, PDF file
The PDF file of the 2004 Green Book can be accessed at: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/wmprints/. Click on "Browse 2004 Green Book".
Please note: TANF refers to the welfare program. It means "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families", see page 8-2 of 2004 Green Book for the history of the child support enforcement program.
From the 2004 Green Book, page 8-67:
"The point here is that non-TANF collections are growing much faster than TANF collections and probably will continue to do so in light of the 1996 welfare reforms. And since the State and Federal Governments receive virtually no direct reimbursement for non-TANF expenditures, the child support program loses more and more money every year. Why, then, critics ask, should the Federal Government encourage greater expenditures by providing incentives for non-TANF collections. Ignoring for the moment possible social benefits from the non-TANF program and based entirely on a finance perspective, some critics argue that non-TANF incentives encourage inefficiency."
Referring to Table 8-5 (shown above), 2004 Green Book, page 8-66:
..."For the first time that year, Federal expenditures exceeded State gains--by $77 million. The net losses have increased almost every year, reaching $852 million in 1995 before declining somewhat to $738 million in 1996. In 2002, the net loss had reached $2.715 billion." ...
From 2004 Green Book, page 8-69:
"IMPACT ON TAXPAYERSOne useful measure of the Federal-State program is the impact of collections on TANF costs. As outlined above, States retain and split with the Federal Government child support collections from parents whose children are on TANF. In addition, States often can retain part of collections from parents whose children were on TANF in the past as repayment for taxpayer-provided TANF benefits. As shown in Table 8-1 above, after a long period of steady growth TANF collections declined from a high of nearly $2.9 billion in 1996 to $2.5 billion in fiscal year 1999 and increased back to $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2002. Despite its many successes, the overall financial impact of the child support program on taxpayers is negative. As shown in Table 8-5, program expenses totaled $2.7 billion in 2002. " ...
Additional information:"Child Support Enforcement FY 2004 Preliminary Report", June 2005
Also see "The Effectiveness of Various Texas Child Support Collection Strategies", Feb. 2001, Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources:
Please also see the National Family Justice Association (NFJA) news release titled "Family Group Supports Budget Cuts for Child Support Funding" at http://www.nfja.org/newsrelease/11-17-2005.html
Copyright © 2005 by Jane Spies and Murray Davis, excluding quotes, excerpts, and other material from other publications.