Bumbling child-support agencies brand good fathers "deadbeats"
By Dianna Thompson & Jane Spies (NFJA Co-Founders)
Free Lance Star 12/8/2000
"As of June 1999, the agency had not distributed $560 million nationwide. ... A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said more than two-thirds of the undistributed money was tied up in government red tape."
The article's title includes the statement, "maybe it's the system that's deadbeat."
Indeed. Many of us can agree on one thing: The child-support enforcement system is not working for anyone: men, women, or children.
We often hear about the negative effects of child-support agency blunders on women and children. We seldom hear of negative consequences of agency blunders from the perspective of the 14 million noncustodial parents, mostly fathers.
What happens to child-support payers when the child-support office bungles, or, as in this case, fails to distribute collected child-support money?
Innocent payers can be subjected to any number of penalties including the loss of driver's licenses and jail time, when in reality they paid the support money. States are notorious for failing to keep interstate child-support records straight. Child-support money can be paid in one state and reported as owed in another. When custodial parents are led to believe the money wasn't paid, this can make the relationship between parents deteriorate, thereby negatively affecting the children.
A recent example of a one-sided approach to the issue of child support is the Oct. 13 U.S. Census report titled "Child Support for Custodial Mothers and Fathers." In this report, only custodial parents were interviewed as a report source.
Furthermore, in many cases where a custodial parent is on welfare, the father's child-support payments go directly to the state for welfare reimbursement; not to the children. Many custodial parents may be unaware that the noncustodial parent is paying, because the money is going to the state. In the Census report, fathers who paid to the state for welfare reimbursement were counted in the "not paying" category. This error could have been prevented had noncustodial parents been interviewed, but they were not asked.
Also, in light of the discovery that there is $560 million sitting in child-support agencies in interest-bearing accounts, how do we know how many custodial parents who report not receiving child support actually are being deprived of such support because of bureaucratic bumbling?
One false premise is that men have the money to pay child support; they just don't want to pay. Through research, we now know that the major reason some men don't pay is that they can't pay. This is usually due to unemployment, illness, or disability. A percentage of dads who aren't paying are not just [so-called] "deadbeat"; they are literally dead.
Even the federal government is beginning to recognize the phenomenon of the "dead-broke dad." Yet by and large we are still laboring under the widely quoted, though erroneous, study of sociologist Lenore Weitzman, who claimed that mothers experience a 73 percent drop in standard of living in the first year after divorce while men live it up on a 42 percent increase.
According to the research of psychologist Sanford Braver, if one considers the costs of fathers' visitations and the tax breaks for mothers, the truth is that men and women on average fare "almost exactly equally" after divorce. [Jane's note, 11/28/04: this research has been updated recently and shows advantages for custodial parent households].
Contrary to popular mythology, most dads do somehow keep current in their child support, oftentimes having to seek help from family members and friends.
Also, numerous newspaper reports reveal that child-support agencies are rife with billing errors. An Aug. 9 Christian Science Monitor story said this about a survey conducted by the American Coalition for Fathers and Children:
"In a study released Aug. 8, 55 percent of child-support payers say they have experienced billing errors by a child-support agency. Among those who tried to get the agency to fix the error, 61 percent were unsuccessful. In 43 percent of cases, the payer had been subjected to punitive measures as a result of a billing error, such as having cars booted or assets seized."
Why are the collection agencies overzealous? It's simple. States make federal money off the collection of child support, although the child-support enforcement agency, overall, loses money for the taxpayers.
In a system marked by little or no accountability, injustices abound. The June 1 Boston Globe reported that "Auditor Joseph DeNucci found the Department of Revenue's Child Support Enforcement Division has been plagued by incorrect accounting, which contributed to a scandal where one manager, John P. Trischitta, directed child-support money to a fund he controlled. 'The lack of controls and oversight of the child-support system is disturbing,' DeNucci said."
Nashville's Commercial Appeal reported that federal auditors found that Tennessee's child-support computer system "contained incomplete and inaccurate data."
A solution to all this? Try building a realistic system with checks and balances, a system that is held accountable.