Child Support Laws Are In Need Of Reform - And Response

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I'm not a stranger to being a single parent. I've been a single divorced parent raising two small children on my own. I can remember running home all the way from work on a cold winter day just in time to prevent the gas company from shutting off the gas to heat my house. At the time, I had a four-year-old and a sickly/asthmatic six-month-old. The utility worker, a very kind gentleman, told me he was determined to wait in the cold as long as possible, because he dreaded shutting off anyone's primary source of heat in the dead of winter. 

So I know about struggling as a single parent with no financial help. However, I still believe there's a need of reform in child support laws. As they stand, there is no distinction between a parent who can't pay and a parent who refuses to pay child support. By incarcerating non-custodial parents who do not have the means to pay nothing is accomplished, the children still go without. Struggling communities continue to deteriorate, and now there's an added burden of having a parent with a criminal record that can possibly later affect the child or children even more so in a negative way later in life. Upon release, the non-custodial parent is still without a job and now, with a criminal record, it will be even more difficult to find one that pays a livable wage. 

Child support laws, as they presently operate, have become a modern day debtor's prison. As the non-custodial parent in many states aren't offered the benefit of legal representation, and without the benefit of looking at each case individually and evaluating the persons ability to pay.  

In a case in Floyd County Georgia in 2011, Miller (along with five other plaintiffs) filed a class action lawsuit which in part stated: "Plaintiffs are indigent parents who have been jailed without counsel for being too poor to fulfill their court-ordered child support obligations. Some of the Plaintiffs have serious physical disabilities. Others have spent months looking for work, only to find none. All are destitute, but all have been or will likely be incarcerated." Pursuant to civil contempt orders that condition their release on payment of enormous “purge fees.” Languishing in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes over a year, these parents share one trait in common besides their poverty: they went to jail without ever talking to an attorney. Not one plaintiff had an appointed attorney to explain to a court that, through no fault of his own, he had no ability to pay. Not one had an appointed attorney.

Randy Miller, a 39-year-old Iraqi war vet, who was originally sentenced to three months in prison for violating a court order to pay child support, is one of six individuals who filed the lawsuit. The judge who presided over the original case the sent him to prison for three months didn't bother to take into account Miller's financial situation, or the fact he'd fallen behind in support payments due having been out of work, nor the fact that he'd only recently gone back to work (similar case here in Chattanooga recently).

When Miller asked the judge to at least give him a month to catch up on payments the judge turned him down, and ordered him to prison. With his job being new, that job would not likely be waiting on him upon release three months later. So the cycle would start over again. Child (children) going without. Father absent, not necessarily by choice but by being incarcerated, and father getting locked up all over again at some point upon release for lack of employment, and now with a criminal record which would make it even more difficult to find employment. So who really wins? The courts? Who really lose? We all?

The same is going on in child support courts right here in Chattanooga, and the state of Tennessee doesn't require or offer legal representation to non-custodial parents to anyones' knowledge, or if it does___it must only be on paper and for appearance sake.  

There's no possible chance for the parent to explain, or the judge willing to listen, that the individual is very much an active part of the child or children lives, although the individual may not be presently be in a position to help financially.  

In Georgia, at least, a class action lawsuit was brought over such practices of not offering defendants in child support cases legal representation, and a judge ruled in favor of the non-custodial parent. That they are indeed entitled to legal representation. 

In March 2011 Miller, along with six other plaintiffs, filed a class action lawsuit  to force the state of Georgia to provide lawyers for poor non-custodial parents facing the loss of their freedom for failing to pay child support. A judge ruled in their favor, although the state said they would appeal.

Child support laws are in serious need of reform in the state of Tennessee and in Chattanooga, as well as as other states, towns and cities. As they presently operate they do more to harm the child/children, and entire communities. In the end no one wins. 

Brenda Manghane-Washington 

* * * 

I never thought I would say this, but Brenda, I agree with you.  The child support laws are flawed.  Locking up a parent that has not paid his child support does not solve any problems.  It takes away any chance he has of actually making his payments, and costs the taxpayers money to house and feed him.   

However, what is the solution?  I'm a police officer, and have arrested plenty of men for not paying their child support.  In many cases, the man is simply not able to pay.  Locking him up does nothing but further prevent even the remote chance he can contribute, at the same time instilling a fear and hatred of police / jail / the legal system in the eyes of the child.   

Unfortunately, I also often run into folks who can pay their child support, but choose not to.  Again, locking them up does not actually address the number one priority (supporting the child). 

When a father defaults on his child support, but is sporting a $150 pair of sneakers, or just played some tennis with a $400 racket, there is a problem.  I have a huge problem with a "man" who drives a $50,000 car, but owes thousands in back child support.   

I just don't have any good alternatives to deal with people like that.  I think there needs to be some sort of "case by case" analysis when someone defaults on their child support.  Having the same answer for a man that can pay, but doesn't, and the man that simply cannot pay is not a good idea.   

I also have another issue with child support.  I wish there was some regulation on how child support money is spent.  I can't tell you how many times I see a kid in week old, unwashed pajama pants while mom is dressed to kill with a $300 hair cut.  I love the WIC program.  It's money that can only be spent on certain things (milk, juice, eggs, cheese etc.).   I think a mother should be held responsible for how she spends her incoming child support money.  Maybe some sort of coupon system, or debit card that is only good for clothes, school products, etc.   

I don't really know how this could be started or enforced, but something needs to change.  Child support is to support a child, that's it.   It's not to buy niceties for the adults in the family.  Maybe if mom is caught wasting the child support money, there can be some sort of trust set up that will have a third party (DCS maybe) manage the funds.   I dunno.  Something has to change.  

There is so much wrong with the system, and I only have vague ideas as to how to fix things.  The major issue we agree on, is that men who simply (legitimately) cannot pay, should not be incarcerated.   

Andrew Peker

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