By Reynold N Mason Esq.
When it comes to child support in America, common sense has gone to the dogs. What justification could there be for compelling a father to pay $51,000.00 for the support of one child? This is not fiction. $51,000.00 a month is what Eddie Murphy pays to Melanie Brown, for the support of his child. A simple calculation shows that the mother will have received more than $11 million dollars by the child’s 18th birthday. This is not a quirk or an aberration. Rapper Nas, was forced to pay $350,000.00 to his ex-wife to avoid jail. In New York, P. Diddy’s court-ordered child support payment of $21, 782.00 is the highest ever in New York. By the child’s 18th birthday, the mother will have received over $4.5 million in support payments from P. Daddy. The list of celebrities trapped in the fangs of this monster is so long that it will persuade even hard-core feminists that the system is abusive toward fathers. But when the gavel comes down in family court, even the ordinary Joe has reason for dread.
Consider the case of Major Wingate, a college student and basketball hopeful. He fathered a child by his girlfriend while at the university of Tennessee. He did not make it to the NBA, so on the advice of his handlers he headed overseas to try and kick start his basketball career. Wingate played basketball in China, Romania, Puerto Rico and other countries in the hope he would be noticed by NBA talent scouts. His career sputtering, he returns home and is promptly jailed by a judge because he had fallen behind in his child support payments. The judge was concerned that being such a global traveler he might not show up for his trial. Child support has driven even the wealthy into penury. Lawrence Taylor, former NFL great and now a Hall of Famer, was driven into bankruptcy by exorbitant child support. Once he left the NFL, LT was unable to maintain the high level of child support on his diminished income. Darryl Strawberry, even while he battled cancer and unemployment was snared by the child support trap. To avoid jail he was forced to pay $350,000.00 in back payments and another $10,000.00 per month to catch up on arrears on $194,000.00. At the settlement conference, the prosecutor promised: “If Mr. Strawberry fails to meet his payments he will go to jail.” Strawberry was also ordered to keep up the regular $12,000.00 monthly payments for the two children.
Child Support Enforcement : the birth of a monster.
No one questions the deeply rooted and firmly held belief that parents have a moral obligation to support their children. But the good intentions of federal bureaucrats have gone awry. In 1996, faced with an increasing bill for AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the Clinton Administration transformed the system of child support into a penal apparatus, replete with its own bureaucracy of child protective services, support collection agents, social workers and, of course, the courts. This system operates outside the constitutional order and, over the last decade has transformed child support enforcement (CSE) into a tyrant that operates by its own rules. The original intent of CSE was to recover money paid to needy families to support children of fathers who had abandoned the families or were ‘willfully absent parents’ who were not supporting their children. The single mother problem was draining welfare funds, especially in the inner cities and swelling the welfare rolls. The intention was to recover from absent fathers, money paid by the government for the support of their families. This system now called TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) was tied to need, and helped families whose income was not enough to meet family needs. Mothers were required to have paternity established and assign to the state, any benefits established by a future child support order. A mother who did not have paternity established had her payments reduced. The government then goes after the absent parent to recover its money. This effectively made the state a collection agency. Billions of federal dollars are available to states that meet federal guidelines for recouping welfare payments from absent parents. In 2006 the Federal government paid $4.2 billion to states under TANF. The result is that states now use the program to increase their caseload. In New York, for example, every parent is required to make child support payments through the Support Collection Unit (SCU) and all employed parents must pay through deduction directly from their pay check.
By this legislative sleight of hand, New York and sister states have entrapped willing fathers and brought them into the system intended only for “welfare families” increasing their caseload and their share of federal dollars for the increased support collection. The states have become, under this system, virtual collection agencies taking a cut of whatever they bleed out of fathers, absent or not. This quasi legal artifice is used to trap support paying fathers, not just “willfully absent’ parents, and bring them into the TANF program, with no eligibility requirements. All that is now required is entitlement to child support. The father need not be absent and may even be current on his voluntary payments. An entire industry has sprung up turning a family matter into a lucrative for- profit business, plunging middle class families into the abyss of CSE and dooming untold number of fathers to virtual serfdom.
Across the country, bar associations, labor unions, social workers, and collection agencies have all hopped aboard the gravy train. Their sleek advertisements can be seen on television inviting mothers to avail themselves of collection services, “no fee unless we collect.” These programs, of dubious social value, keep the cash flowing into state and private coffers by draining money from fathers sliding into poverty under the weight of an unfair system. According to a Preliminary Data Report from the Washington office of child support issued in 2003, the non- welfare cases, divorced and separated fathers, accounted for 83% of the CSE case load, and 92 % of the money collected. At its inception welfare cases comprised 100 % of the CSE caseload. The report found that “most states make a profit on their child support program”, and are free to spend the money in any way they see fit. Because of this disconnect, every fatherless child is looked upon as a source of revenue for states strapped for cash. The scramble for federal dollars, in addition to interest and penalties on arrears, is the engine driving the exponential growth of the CSE behemoth. This system allowed Ohio to rake in $240 million and California $640 million in 2003, according to the Green Book for the House Ways and Means committee for 2003.
Before the birth of CSE, nearly all support was paid directly from one parent to another without officious meddling by government bureaucrats. The criminal enforcement methods that have become de rigueur were employed only in welfare cases to compel recalcitrant inner city fathers to repay money paid for support of their children under TANF. These methods, meant for welfare cases, now apply to all child support cases, even though there is no willfully absent parent or refusal to pay support. For men in general, and for a few women, child support has been transformed from a system of public assistance into penal machinery, bilking willing and able fathers of their hard-earned money, often beyond their ability to pay. When this happens, the full range of criminal sanctions is brought to bear. These sanctions can crush and paralyze fathers and destroy second families. Missed payments lead to jail for contempt, loss of driver’s license, asset seizures, garnished paychecks, tax refund intercepts and even revocation of a father’s passport. The machinery leaves no stone unturned; employers are now required to file a report whenever a new employee is hired. In a few jurisdictions a father in arrears may find his car booted. The burden of alleviating welfare has shifted from the government onto the backs of middle class fathers. It is a forced march to the poor house, and those who fall behind will be tagged with the vile moniker “deadbeat dads.” One writer has said the constitution never granted the states license to steal, but in 2010, the fleecing of working fathers is occurring before our eyes disguised as the CSE monster.
My thanks to Stephen Baskerville of the Institute for policy Innovation and, to Larry Holland and Jason Bottomley; their work on this issue has brought important policy questions to light.