August 26, 2005
Persecuting Low Income Parents
by Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks
In a highly-publicized move, Jefferson County, Kentucky Attorney Irv Maze recently published the names and addresses of 1,000 alleged “deadbeat parents” in the Louisville Courier-Journal. The move has drawn praise nationally, and Maze says the list is helping his office locate debtors. However, most of the parents on Maze’s humiliating list are not those who won’t pay, but instead those who can’t pay.
Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those who owe child support nationwide earned less than $10,000 in the previous year. According to the largest federally funded study of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support. A US Government Accounting Office survey of custodial mothers who were not receiving the support they were owed found that two-thirds of those fathers who do not pay their child support fail to do so because they are indigent.
These research findings are reflected in Kentucky’s Top 10 Most Wanted Parents list. Of those “deadbeats” currently listed, only one appears to have any education at all, and the most common designation for occupation is “laborer.” Far from being a list of well-heeled businessmen, lawyers, and accountants, these men do low wage and often seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which most could never hope to pay off.
Kentucky’s list of low income “deadbeats” is typical of the child support evaders lists put out by most states. For example, Virginia’s new list is topped by a laborer, a carnival hired hand, and a construction worker, who collectively somehow “owe” over a quarter million dollars in child support!
The driving force behind child support arrearages is not bad parents, but instead rigid child support systems which are mulishly impervious to the economic realities noncustodial parents face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffer substantial income drops are able to get courts to reduce their child support payments. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest and penalties.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the federal Bradley Amendment bars judges from retroactively forgiving child support arrearages, even when they determine that the arrearage occurred through no fault of the obligor. Bradley is so problematic that Congress will be conducting hearings on the amendment this fall.
In one McCracken County, Kentucky case, Francis Borgia, a carpet cleaner in Paducah, slit his throat in the courtroom after being sentenced to two years in jail for being $7,000 behind on child support. According to newspaper accounts, Borgia had become a “deadbeat” after he lost a good paying job working in a casino and could not get a downward modification on his support.
Also victimized by Maze’s list are those who are named in error. For example, according to television station WAVE 3 in Louisville, Maze mistakenly listed James R. Frazier as a deadbeat who owes $57,000, and gave out his current home address. Frazier and his wife Bertha have been erroneously targeted by enforcement officials before, and have spent years fighting to straighten out the error. The agency had previously acknowledged its mistake–and then went ahead and published the erroneous information anyway.
Child support collection agencies are notorious for their errors and bureaucratic bungling, as even supporters of the lists such as the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support admit. A study conducted by ACES revealed that state child support enforcement agencies nationwide had failed to distribute over $500 million which had been paid by noncustodial parents.
Beyond mistaken identity, as in the Frazier case, common agency errors include: mathematical errors; failure to record or transfer records of payments; billing men for children they did not father; failing to stop child support when a child reaches the age of emancipation; accepting custodial parents’ false reports of nonpayment; and failure to update child support orders with later court rulings affecting modifications. Audits and evaluations have shown that errors comprise a third of all arrearages in some states and counties.
It is true that jailing those behind on child support does sometimes result in some of the arrearages being paid. However, this is usually not because the low income dad they’ve arrested has decided to sell his Porsche and his vacation home, but instead because his family and friends have put up the money to keep him out of jail.
Even when dealing with the small percentage of fathers who have the money to pay but choose not to, Maze’s approach is at times misguided. According to the Children’s Rights Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial parents. Family courts are often tragically indifferent to enforcing noncustodial parents’ visitation rights. One can understand why noncustodial parents who have been driven out of their children’s lives feel little motivation to subsidize the custodial parent’s filching of their children.
In contrast to Maze’s abusive, overkill approach, state child support systems need to be made more flexible and responsive, so that low income parents aren’t made into criminals because they’ve failed to pay child support obligations which are beyond their reach. As Borgia, who survived his courtroom suicide attempt, noted:
“My only ‘crime’ was my failure to make as much money as the state demanded…I couldn’t quite understand why I was treated so harshly. I’m not a deadbeat dad. I’m a broke dad.”
This article first appeared in the Cincinnati Post and the Kentucky Post (8/26/05).