By Jeffery M. Leving & Glenn Sacks
Child support debtors are everybody’s favorite punching bag. The Daily News
is apparently no exception, as reporter Dana DiFillippo recently penned two illadvised,
one-sided critiques of divorced and separated fathers.
In Jail Threat Springs, DiFillippo highlights the story of a local “deadbeat”
who offered a judge a “list of reasons why he had failed to pay almost
$16,000” in child support. The judge “barks” at these explanations and gives
the surprised father two months in jail. DiFillippo approvingly quotes prosecutor
Maria McLaughlin, who “chalked up another victory” with the case,
as McLaughlin blames the debtor for his incarceration. According to
McLaughlin, he should have simply paid the $1,200 “purge factor” the judge set
to allow him to avoid jail.
Though DiFillippo is apparently too busy applauding to notice, McLaughlin’s
view of the case makes little sense. The father would rather spend two months
in jail than pay $1,200? The father thinks it’s better to lose his job and two
months or more of wages than pay the purge factor? This dad is either broke
or he sure has a strange set of priorities.
Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows it’s likely the former–
two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earn poverty level
wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by
those earning $40,000 or more a year.
The inflated arrearages are created in large part because the child support
system is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people face,
such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries.
According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who
suffers a substantial drop in income is able to obtain a reduction in child
McLaughlin tells DiFillippo that some debtors don’t go to jail because they
“miraculously come up with the money” for the purge factor. However, this is
usually not the debtor’s money–his parents, relatives and friends have
collected the purge factor to keep him out of jail. McLaughlin’s admission that
many do go to jail rather than pay is evidence of these obligors’ inability to pay.
In DiFillippo’s other article, “Woman starts Web site to shame vanished dads,”
she salutes activist Fadia Ward and her website
www.sorryassbabydaddies.com. Ward excoriates dads and calls on her fellow
sisters to publicly humiliate them, saying “our men have got to get it
together…the only way to do that is to take their manhood away.” Certainly
there are fathers who do not come through for their children. Yet Ward, who at
age 27 has had four children by four different fathers, eschews any personal
fault for her own situation, claiming that none of her four births were intended.
The home page of Ward’s website depicts an African-American father shouting
“get outta here with all that” as his two little children cry at his feet, begging for
his affection, and the children’s mother cries and holds out a baby to him. This
is a terrible distortion of the lives of divorced or separated dads, many of whom
struggle to remain a part of their children’s lives.
According to the Children’s Rights Council, a Washington, DC-based children’s
advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their
access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial
parents. These fathers must wage expensive court battles in order to see their
children. Some can’t afford it and give up, and are understandably unenthused
about sacrificing to pay support to the exes who separated them from their
On many occasions the Daily News has movingly portrayed the problems
faced by Philadelphia’s legions of low-income African-American men. In April,
Sandra Shea described a “growing population of invisible men haunting the
streets” who “enter a world stripped of opportunity, such as the well-paying
manufacturing jobs that used to exist.” These men struggle to find jobs and pay
their rent—does DiFillippo believe that they don’t similarly struggle to pay their
This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News (8/2/06).
The two Philadelphia Daily News pieces to which this responds are Jail Threat Springs $$ (7/20/06) and Woman starts Web site to shame vanished dads (7/20/06). We also make positive reference to Sandra Shea’s Rescuing society’s dropouts (4/21/06). We commend the paper for its willingness to publish such criticism.