Child Support Calamities

We frequently hear about “deadbeat dads” who don’t pay child support. However, the patently unfair way fathers are often treated by the family court system in this country is usually ignored because most stories on the subject focus more on vilifying men in child support disputes than pointing out how some of them may be victimized as well. But luckily, this Phyllis Schlafly column gives the sort of stories that often slip under the media’s radar the attention that they deserve:

“This injustice to our reservists serving in Iraq should be remedied by Congress and state legislatures before more fathers meet the fate of Bobby Sherrill, a father of two from North Carolina, who worked for Lockheed in Kuwait before being captured and held hostage by Iraq for five terrible months. The night he returned from the Persian Gulf he was arrested for failing to pay $1,425 in child support while he was a captive.

Just last week, a Wilkes Barre, PA judge sentenced 28 to jail for failure to pay small amounts of child support, one as little as $322. One of the most common punishments for falling behind in family-court-ordered payments is to take away a father’s driver’s license, costing him his job, then demand that he make his child-support payments anyway, and throw him in jail when that proves impossible.

Politicians today are engaged in a spirited debate about giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens so they can get to work. But somehow the law has already decided that a divorced father, who may have fallen behind in child-support payments, should be punished by having his driver’s license taken away.

The New York Times just exposed the ridiculous case of truck driver Donald Gardner who was left penniless after a 1997 car accident cost him three years of hospitalization. When he tried to return to work, he found that the state had taken away his driver’s license because he owed $119,846 in child support.

The Times reported that, as of 2003, fathers allegedly owed $96 billion in child-support. However, 70 percent is owed by men who earn less than $10,000 a year or have no wage earnings at all, so we have a $3 billion government bureaucracy working to get blood out of a turnip.

The most bizarre part of the system is that child-support payments are not required to be spent on the children and are not based on any estimates of their needs or expenses. The support orders come from court-created formulas based on the income of the father, while the mother is allowed to treat the payments like any other entitlement such as welfare or alimony.

Although there are no official statistics, estimates are that more than 100,000 fathers are jailed each year for missing their child-support payments. Another perverse feature of the current system is that child-support payments have nothing to do with whether the father is allowed to see his children and there is no enforcement of his visitation rights.

Debtors’ prisons were common in colonial times, but they were abolished by the new United States government, one of the great improvements we made on English law. Then we adopted bankruptcy laws to allow people a fresh start when they are overwhelmed by debt, but child-support debts are not permitted to be discharged in bankruptcy.

The federal Bradley Amendment, named for the liberal Senator Bill Bradley, takes us back to the cruel days of debtors’ prisons. It requires that a child-support debt cannot be retroactively reduced or forgiven, and the states enforce this law no matter what the change in a father’s income, no matter if he is sent to war or locked up in prison, no matter if he is unemployed or hospitalized or even dead, no matter if DNA proves the guy is not the father, and no matter if he is never allowed to see his children.”

Nobody wants deadbeat parents to be out living it up while their kids are denied the basic necessities. However, it’s obvious that the current system we have is draconian and in great need of reform…

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