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Dianna Thompson & Murray Davis: Child support system doesn't give parents a chance


Published 2003-10-26

Dianna Thompson & Murray Davis: Child support
system doesn't give parents a chance

Rather than shame for pressed parents, how about help?

According to a recent Lansing State Journal article, Wayne Erwin, 50, served three weeks in jail for being behind in child support. He explained that in 1986 he had suffered a broken back from a crash, which prevented him from working for three years. He got behind in child support payments.  If Mr. Erwin doesn't somehow come up with $10,000, he'll be in jail again.  

Possibly, Erwin's family will try to keep their loved one out of jail by paying his debt. In doing so, they may be plundered of their life savings, someday becoming dependent on public funds.  

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. 

The federal government is beginning to recognize the phenomenon of the "deadbroke dad." Yet we still labor under the widely quoted - though erroneous - study of
sociologist Lenore Weitzman, who claims 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 researcher Dr. Sanford Braver, higher child support guidelines enacted in 1988 and tax advantages to custodial parents are now leading to benefits in standard of living for the custodial parent.

The Clinton County Friend of the Court recognizes that publishing names of parents behind in child support embarrasses their children. They have rightfully refused to cooperate with the newspaper by providing names of alleged nonpayers for public shaming.

Consider this. In 2002 in Pennsylvania, under pressure from the Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union, judges released 37 people jailed without hearings for not paying child support. In November 2002, the ACLU got the Westmoreland courts to advise people allegedly owing child support that they have a right to legal counsel during their hearings, even if they don't have the money to afford a lawyer.

According to an ACLU executive director, "... the law is clear in that anyone facing imprisonment is constitutionally entitled to a lawyer in civil and criminal procedures." According to a Sept. 27 Associated Press report, "Indigent parents jailed in New Jersey for failure to pay child support will be freed because they were denied courtappointed lawyers, the Administrative Office of the Courts said."

There's almost $660 million in undistributed child support payments nationwide. Michigan is holding $68 million, according to one advocacy group. Some agencies are rife with error. Are their so-called "deadbeat parent" lists accurate?

Fathers who see their children and who have jobs pay their support. Enforce child visitation court orders and offer shared parenting. Make sure child support guidelines are fair and enable all involved to live comfortably.

Dianna Thompson is a founder and director of public policy of the 
National Family Justice Association
 (www.nfja.org).  Murray Davis is an NFJA founder and vice president.

LSJ coverage:   See the State Journal's coverage of Michigan's child support system at www.lsj.com/xtras/childsupport.

Read Op/Ed at: (as of June 20, 2005, link does not work) http://www.lsj.com/opinions/letters/031026_thomptv_(support).html