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Rethinking child support, Part 1: How good parents go to jail

Examining why the our child support system is out of sync with society, and its impact on Kent County’s most economically disadvantaged parents.
Kent County Friend of the Court offices at 82 Ionia downtown Grand Rapids.

Kent County Friend of the Court offices at 82 Ionia downtown Grand Rapids. /Marjorie Steele

Underwriting support from:
Kent County Friend of the Court offices at 82 Ionia downtown Grand Rapids.

Kent County Friend of the Court offices at 82 Ionia downtown Grand Rapids. /Marjorie Steele

This is the first in a two-part series examining the United States’ Child Support Enforcement system, Michigan Friend of the Court’s role in implementing it, and its impact on local communities - specifically in Kent County, Michigan. The author, a mother, has been a child support payee in Kent County since 2014.

Updated August 16, 4:50pm.

Racial and economic inequity are hot topics lately - especially regarding how local governments interact with communities. Our own community is still working through the repercussions of viral footage of GRPD’s pulling guns on 12-14 year old boys in a black neighborhood in broad daylight.

But there’s another issue which no one is talking about - one which quietly impacts over 13.4 families across the U.S. each month, including 40,000 families in Kent County (according Kent County Friend of the Court): the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) system. CSE collected nearly $28 billion in child support payments in 2010.

That’s $28,000,000,000 in child support paid under court order in one year, operating under federal legislature passed by congress over 40 years ago. As of 2015, unpaid child support totaled $113 billion, and rising.

Many parents who are divorced or separated encounter the CSE. But while child support can be ordered for parents across the economic spectrum, enrollment is required only when parents are seeking public assistance. Divorced parents who can afford the attorney’s fees to avoid court orders often bypass CSE entirely. In Kent County, 37 percent of families enrolled in child support receive Medicaid or other public assistance programs.

And the program has particularly cruel and cyclical repercussions for the lowest income earning child support payers:

In Michigan, if you don’t pay child support, you lose your driver’s license and go to jail. 

When Friend of the Court seems like an enemy of the people

As of July 2017, Kent County's Friend of the Court tallies over 3,500 outstanding bench warrants involving unpaid child support for ~6,000 children. Friend of the Court (FOC), the arm of the family division of local Circuit Courts which implements collection, enforcement, and investigation for both child support and child custody cases, will tell you that there are many simple steps that non-custodial parents can take to avoid a bench warrant. Simply showing up at the “show cause” hearing and explaining your situation to the judge can prevent a warrant. Partial payments can be made. Proof of employment search can be submitted in lieu of full payment. But as evidenced by parents’ frustration expressed on a plethora of blog posts, Google reviews, and parenting forum threads, the vast majority of parents who have been clients of FOC will tell you nothing about working with FOC is simple, or easy.

In fact, sometimes it’s straight up impossible.

During a public input session held by the Kent County Friend of the Court Community Engagement Task Force on March 6, one man explained how he had been paying child support for 16 years for a child who was not biologically his, as confirmed by a DNA test, because FOC had determined there was no way to change his status in their software system.

That wasn’t the only extreme anecdote at the input session. Tales of being arrested at work, losing jobs and housing due to arrests and/or revoked licenses, of fathers struggling to gain access to their court ordered parenting time, custodial parents of children with disabilities owed tens of thousands in support payments, and so on. Institutional bias against fathers - fathers of color in particular - was a common theme.

One only needs to read a handful of the 44 Google reviews of Kent County FOC - or of any Michigan county FOC, for that matter - to understand that Friend of the Court has some major problems with bureaucratic inefficiency. Kent County’s FOC averages 1.4 out of 5 stars; Wayne County’s 117 reviews average 1.3 stars.

In a Google review of Kent County’s FOC, Ed C comments: “Difficult to work with. Proved I was paying my support with cashed checks and they still charged me a fee. I've been trying to pay the fee for 6 months over the phone and can't get figure it out.”

Tim Terhorst observes: “Even though I make less than what I did they raised my child support to a point where I can barely survive and when I needed help to understand they tell me I have no case worker.”

Custodial parents attempting to collect payment have their share of complaints, too. Elizabeth Bennett says: “My daughter is 21 and her biological father hasn't seen her since she was 2 and is over 23,000 behind in child support. I have written letters with no response, I have called and get to talk to the receptionist most of the time. I have no idea who my caseworker is and haven't for many years. If I'm lucky enough to get connected to a worker, it's their voicemail and I never get a call back.”

All this feedback boils down to two primary themes: fathers getting jailed or financially paralyzed, and custodial parents - typically mothers - not getting paid.

Little research has been done on the real economic impact of CSE’s operations on low income families today, but if one is to extrapolate a reasonable portion of the hardships expressed in input sessions and social media into economic terms, it’s clear that the current child support system is having a negative impact on America’s lower class families, to put it quite mildly.

It’s important to understand, however, that Friend of the Court offices, inefficient and arguably biased their cultures may be, are working under the rigid state and federal legislative guidelines they’re charged to implement. In order to fully understand why the child support system is having the impact it currently is, we need to first understand why the program was created in the first place.

The child support system was created in order to pay for welfare

Understanding CSE’s modern day dysfunction begins with understanding its original purpose: to generate revenue to offset the costs of paying welfare to low-income single-parent families after divorce.

As the Congressional Research Service’s 2012 report chronicles: “The CSE program was passed by Congress in 1975 with two primary goals. The first goal was to reduce public expenditures for actual and potential welfare recipients by obtaining ongoing support from noncustodial parents. The second goal was to establish paternity for children born outside marriage so that child support could be obtained.”

In other words: the child support system was created in order to help pay for welfare, and collecting those payments is its motive for establishing paternity.

When CSE was created, states were then required to establish the paternity of any children of custodial parents who applied for public assistance programs - in order to collect child support.

In addition to submitting to a paternity investigation and opening a child support case, custodial parents seeking welfare must waive their right to a portion (typically the majority) of their child support payments, in lieu of welfare benefits such as SNAP, Bridge, WIC or Medicaid.

Custodial parents who don’t receive welfare benefits receive all of their child support; these funds are a direct passthrough for CSE. Child support payments for children who do receive welfare benefits, however, go to pay for those benefits, including administration fees (7.4 percent in Kent County as of February 2017), with as little as $50 per month reaching the custodial parent.

Consider the context of this legislation. In the 1970s, married nuclear families were the standard, and they were clearly gendered: fathers were sole breadwinners, and mothers raised the children. However, when California legalized no-fault divorce in 1969 and other states began to follow suit, the country saw a flood of divorces. Legislators sought a way to ensure families with children could maintain financial consistency post-divorce, in a society not structured for single parents to work. At the time, research showed that the single greatest cause for the rise in welfare costs was divorce - and it also showed divorced fathers’ incomes going up post-divorce, while custodial mothers’ went down.

Thus, the narrative of the deadbeat dad was formed.

Read it in the Finance Committee’s own words in their December 1974 report on the CSE legislation: “The problem of welfare in the United States is, to a considerable extent, a problem of the non-support of children by their absent parents.

The report also specifies that the goal of the new “CSE program would be to lower welfare costs to the taxpayer and to deter fathers from abandoning their families.”

In other words: welfare was, as politicians saw it, a cost induced by fathers’ abandonment, so the CSE was created to recoup that cost from them.

Child Support Enforcement doesn’t work, and it never really has

Since 1975, a lot has changed. Nonmarital childbearing skyrocketed in the 80s, as did mothers joining the workforce, which reached 20 percent by 1980. But despite the fact that CSE was designed to manage the fallout from divorced families, never married custodial parents seeking welfare assistance were plunged into the CSE system just the same - and non-custodial parents along with them.

The irony of CSE’s original design as a revenue generator is that the portion of child support recipients who are also welfare recipients has steadily decreased over the years. In other words: CSE isn’t recouping money - it’s losing money. And it has been for most of its lifetime.

According to the Congressional Research Service, CSE has been operating at a loss since 1979 - just four years after the legislation was passed. In 2009, CSE operated at a $2.9 billion loss for the federal government, and $718 million for states.

The sexism no one is talking about

The gendered nature of CSE’s design on today’s gender-fluid society has very real repercussions on parents and families, and it's resulted in a system which is deeply sexist - albeit a form of sexism which rarely makes its way into mainstream conversations.

Consider one quirk in child support calculations: custodial parents are not required to hold employment in order to receive child support; in fact, a payee’s loss of income will usually recalculate the paying parent’s required payments to be higher, regardless of the paying parent’s income. If the custodial parent chooses not to work, it’s possible to make $1500 per month and owe $1450 per month in child support - for one child.

When the majority of custodial parents are mothers (due, by many accounts, to the maternal bias of court systems), it’s easy to see how the “Golden Uterus” stereotype emerges.

Consider another quirk: backpayments. If a custodial mother of a three year old, who was never married to the child’s father, applies for Medicaid for the first time, the court will not only order child support in the future, but could very well order backpayments covering all three prior years. There are countless examples of men who had no idea they had a child, who had been living together with the child and mother before separating, or any other number of unique circumstances, before getting slapped with thousands in child support arrears. Telling someone who is making minimum wage to pay $5,000 under threat of jail time is not just wildly unrealistic. It’s unethical.

In the context of 1970’s America, when the vast majority of children were born into marriages and most married fathers made a decent middle class wage capable of supporting a family, this arrangement makes some sense. In today’s world of dual-income and single parent households, 40% of which are primarily supported by women, these child support calculations place an unequal financial burden on non-custodial parents.

And we haven’t even touched on custody (i.e. “parenting time”), which is also implemented by FOC. That’s a whole other barrel of fish.

These issues affect men who are poor - men of color in particular - so they don’t receive the platform or attention that feminist and LGBT-centered issues do. The stigma of the deadbeat dad is strong, and too toxic even for social justice warriors to touch.

As a result, outdated legislation continues to strain families and victimize the most economically disadvantaged and marginalized of our communities, dragging down our economics, workforces, and neighborhoods.

Fixing it

Kent County’s FOC recently wrapped up a Community Engagement Task Force, which produced specific recommendations for decreasing arrests. In Part 2, we’ll examine the report, as well as successful child support models used in other parts of the world, and what the U.S. could glean from them. Look for the next post next week.

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