$3 Billion Owed In Child Support Is An Illusion

By: Jeffery M. Leving

In response to the Chicago Sun-Times’ front page article “$3 Billion Owed in Child Support” on March 28, 2011, a complete critical analysis of this problem is necessary.

I agree that unpaid child support is an epidemic in Illinois.  However, the article highlights the symptoms of the problem, but does not globally examine the causation as I see it.

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. 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.

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.

Also victimized are those who are named in error. I have defended fathers accused of owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in child support that were not delinquent one penny.

Child support collection agencies are known for errors and bureaucratic bungling, as even 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, 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Special thanks to Glenn Sacks for his contribution to this article.