Deadbroke dads

The system makes Darryl Gay pay child support. But it’s more than he can afford and his daughter doesn’t get the money. Is this how it’s supposed to work?

The child-support system actually has complicated Darryl Gay’s visitation with his daughter, Tynea. His finances were wracked so severely he had to move to less-stable housing he’d prefer his daughter not visit for safety’s sake.

The child-support system actually has complicated Darryl Gay’s visitation with his daughter, Tynea. His finances were wracked so severely he had to move to less-stable housing he’d prefer his daughter not visit for safety’s sake.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Six-year-old Tynea fidgeted at the dinner table, bored, counting a stack of crackers on her plate. A Warner Bros. cartoon murmured faintly from the living room of the Mack Road apartment where she was visiting her father, Darryl Gay, for the weekend.

Tynea’s parents never married and broke up soon after she was born. Gay, 41, continued to visit his daughter almost daily, and, though there was no child-support order, contributed to her upbringing by buying diapers, clothes, formula and other necessities.

“I was buying my daughter whatever she needed because I was there every day,” Gay says. “I knew what her needs were. I was buying what she needed.”

But then, Gay says, Tynea’s mother moved out of town without telling him, taking his daughter and her six other children from different relationships with her. Two years and two private investigators later, Gay finally found Tynea living in Oakland with her mother. He was eager to renew his relationship with his daughter and begin contributing what he could to her upbringing.

That’s when the welfare bureaucracy put its boot up Gay’s backside.

After Tynea’s mother moved to Oakland, she applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, otherwise known as welfare. Because of new regulations enacted in the 1990s, she was required to name Tynea’s father to Alameda County welfare authorities. A court order was issued requiring Gay to begin providing child support and to reimburse any money paid to Tynea by the state.

Because Gay’s whereabouts were unknown at the time, he was unaware of the order. But when he tracked down his daughter on his own accord, Alameda County slapped him with a $227-per-month child-support payment. As an in-home health aide, Gay makes $830 per month. That leaves him with just $603 to make ends meet after paying child support. None of the money he paid on his own in the past counts. But here’s the real rub: Most of the child support goes not to Tynea or her mother, but to Alameda County. Only $50 goes to Tynea.

Welcome to welfare reform, American style.

Thanks to a convoluted bureaucracy, flawed research and our country’s never-ending war on the poor, Gay must now choose between providing care for his daughter or obeying the law and reimbursing the state for welfare paid to Tynea’s mother over the years. He is not alone. Our national obsession with pursuing deadbeat dads is leaving many well-intentioned fathers destitute, and even homeless.

Call them deadbroke dads.

Millions of American fathers owe a total of more than $100 billion in back child-support payments, not to the custodial parents or their children, but to an unwieldy gaggle of federal, state and county agencies that have virtually unlimited collection powers. These agencies can seize assets, halt careers, crush credit ratings, revoke licenses, garnish wages and force employers to enroll children in health plans they may not be able to use.

In Gay’s case the result has been depressingly ironic. He has visitation rights, but he may soon be unable to afford a place where his daughter can come visit him. At the time he was first interviewed, Gay was staying in an apartment originally rented by his sister and Tynea’s aunt. He would have to move as soon as the lease was up in a couple months.

It’s not uncommon for children to lose contact with one of their parents after a separation or a divorce. But fathers are far more likely to desert their children, and less likely to pay child support, if they never married their child’s mother in the first place.

Because nearly 70 percent of African-American children are born to mothers who never married—almost three times the rate of whites—government officials have for decades considered fatherlessness to be a distinctly “black problem,” notes Solangel Maldonado, a law professor at Seton Hall University. In “Deadbeat or Deadbroke: Redefining Child Support for Poor Fathers,” published by the UC Davis Law Review last year, she argues that the child-support system patently ignores economic reality, crushing poor fathers around the country in a growing mountain of debt, especially poor African-American fathers.

But the high percentage of black children born out of wedlock doesn’t tell the whole story, Maldonado insists. While studies consistently find that children in two-parent households do better than children raised by one parent, the negative effects associated with being raised in single-parent families are countered by the significant involvement of the non-custodial parent, most often the father. Moreover, recent studies have found that poor African-American fathers are more likely to be involved in the lives of their children than poor fathers of other races.

Unfortunately, the child-support system does not recognize the informal, undocumented assistance fathers like Gay provide their children. The only factor the system considers in measuring responsible fatherhood is the payment of formal child support. Because African-American men are far more likely to be poor than whites, they have greater difficulty making child-support payments. That’s led policymakers to presume that African-American fathers are more likely to abandon their children than other races.

Maldonado says that most fathers would rather directly support their children, but can’t afford to have large wage garnishments and also pitch in directly. While academics and lawmakers may not have accepted this reality, African-American mothers have.

“Although African-American mothers believe that a father’s primary responsibility is to meet his children’s economic needs, they rarely pursue their children’s fathers for child support,” Maldonado writes. “This may seem foolhardy. It is not.

“The majority of these deadbroke African-American fathers contribute to their children in non-monetary ways,” Maldonado continues. “African-American communities recognize the economic realities and acknowledge these contributions as evidence of being a responsible parent. Unfortunately, the law does not.”

Gay agrees.

“I wasn’t giving her mother cash in hand,” Gay says. “I felt like it would be taking away from what I was supposed to be doing as a father, which I liked. When my daughter needed stuff, I went out and bought it and got it for her. If I would have just given her the money, it would have cut out something that I was doing.”

To a father with limited resources, providing diapers and baby formula have a greater significance than giving the custodial mother—or the state—cash.

Sociologist Lenore Weitzman’s 1985 book, The Divorce Revolution, revealed an appalling statistic: After divorce, a woman’s standard of living fell by 73 percent, while her ex-husband’s rose by 42 percent.

Weitzman’s research lit a grease fire under public opinion, and over the next decade her statistic was cited nearly 800 times in newspapers, magazines, law reviews and academic journals, court cases (including a U.S. Supreme Court opinion) and President Bill Clinton’s 1996 budget proposal. Reacting to a storm of political pressure, Congress and state legislatures around the country chose the simplest solution to the problem: force fathers to pay more child support.

In 1986, three paragraphs, together known as the Bradley Amendment, were inserted in the “Omnibus Budget Bill,” a method that Congress routinely uses to pass hundreds of unrelated measures all at once in an effort to clear the legislative slate. This short insertion made sweeping changes to the nation’s child-support-enforcement system.

It prohibited judges nationwide from retroactively modifying a child-support judgment for any reason. Further, it turned every child-support obligation into an automatic, non-expiring judgment and lien, allowing asset seizures, wage garnishments, and a myriad of other collection tactics against any late-paying father to proceed without any further court involvement. Fathers who were behind on their child support were now labeled “deadbeat dads.”

Politicians, in a fog of self-congratulatory giddiness, took credit for and waged re-election campaigns using the deadbeat-dad catchphrase. However, they forgot one thing: the children.

California only passes along the first $50 per month of child support to mothers on welfare. The rest is diverted to the state as reimbursement for welfare costs. While this system is intended to reduce welfare costs, and evidence shows it does, some believe it alienates children from their fathers, discouraging dads from paying support because there is little direct benefit to their children.

“Allowing states to keep large shares of child support when children are on welfare encourages them to go after money where it is least likely to be found,” Elaine Sorensen, a research associate at the Urban Institute, wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary.

In 1996, still fueled by Weitzman’s statistics—which, as reported below, have since come into serious question—Congress passed and Clinton signed into law the tediously named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as welfare reform. The act sought to increase employment among single mothers and more aggressively collect child support from fathers. It abandoned the 60-year-old, open-ended welfare program and replaced it with a lifetime limit of 60 months of assistance and established the Welfare-to-Work program.

As a condition of receiving welfare payments, mothers are automatically enrolled in the child-support-enforcement system and must sign over the rights to any child-support payments collected. Mothers who refuse to identify the father can see their benefits cut by at least 25 percent, and in some states benefits are totally withdrawn. In addition, states that do not meet goals in establishing paternity face cuts in federal funding.

The law further sought to collect billions of dollars in unpaid child support, an amount that in the past decade has grown from $70 billion to $111 billion. A national “Directory of New Hires” was created, so child-support-enforcement officials can easily find fathers with wages to garnish. Banks are required to match up lists of child-support cases with bank accounts and are prohibited from telling account holders of the states’ inquiries. States that do not meet collection goals again face federal penalties.

Child-support orders are usually retroactive to the day the child was born, and fathers are ordered to reimburse the state for any public assistance paid to the child. A father can owe back child support, or in the jargon of the system, “arrearages,” even before the court issues a formal child-support order. Private arrangements between parents are now ignored, even with notarized documents.

Glenn Sacks, host of the syndicated talk show, His Side with Glenn Sacks, says even direct financial contributions go unacknowledged.

“I get e-mails and letters by the hundreds from fathers who show canceled checks for child support paid directly to the mother,” Sacks recounts, “and the state says, ‘That’s a gift, and it doesn’t count.’ It’s like sending him a Visa card with a $20,000 balance already on it.”

The law also does not consider a father’s ability to pay. When child-support orders are set, they are “imputed,” meaning that the courts set an amount a father should be able to pay. Actual income is seldom considered.

“Seventy percent of the back child support nationwide is owed by fathers who earn less then $10,000 a year,” Maldonado says. “An unemployed father could be ordered to pay $400 per month in child support because the court says he should earn $20,000 per year. So courts frequently order fathers to pay a lot more than they can afford.”

The welfare reforms of the 1990s have increased child-support collection, but fail to take into consideration the fact that most deadbeat dads live below the poverty line. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of those who owe child support earned less then $10,000 the previous year, according to data from the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement. More than half do not have health insurance.

Of the poor fathers who do pay, more than a quarter pay half or more of their monthly income toward child support, according to the Urban Institute’s Sorensen.

If “deadbeats” don’t pay, another way agencies force them to ante up is by suspending or intercepting licenses. This includes driver’s licenses and virtually any professional license. For example, Sacramento County files license intercepts if a father gets more than $100 or 30 days behind.

Gay’s license has been suspended for five years. The Alameda County family court released the child-support hold on his license in May, and he paid $800 in fines to get it reinstated, only to find that there was another $2,500 in penalties on those fines.

“They want you to pay, but they take away some of the most important things you need to make money,” Gay says.

Gay’s sister, Deanna Moore, a Sacramento-area bail-bond agent and tax preparer, says she deals with this all the time.

“If they drive without a license to try to get their finances on track,” she says, “they seem to get caught every few months and have to blow a grand on another heap of rust because their car gets impounded.”

Collecting child support from poor fathers to prop up the welfare system may seem justified considering Weitzman’s statistics that after divorce, a woman’s standard of living falls by 73 percent, while a man’s rises by 42 percent.

Too bad it’s not true.

Many social scientists were skeptical of Weitzman’s statistics from the beginning. According to an April 1996 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Weitzman resisted scrutiny of her data and only let peers review her work after the National Science Foundation, the agency that funded her study, threatened to disqualify her from further research grants.

Professor Sanford Braver, an Arizona State University psychologist who studies families and children in high-stress situations, was one of the first researchers to shoot down Weitzman’s numbers. Commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health, he conducted the largest federally funded study of divorced dads specifically to find out why so many of America’s dads were ditching their children. Instead of finding a reason for it, he found it was overwhelmingly false. Instead, he found that they usually make out equally, both experiencing a drop in standard of living because they each have to support two households rather than a shared one.

But because Weitzman’s statistic became conventional wisdom worldwide, Braver and other researchers who repeatedly contradicted her findings struggled to attract the attention of the media. Braver first confronted Weitzman in 1989—seven years before Clinton cited her statistic in his budget proposal. He told her that it seemed to be a mathematical error. She told him that she couldn’t rule it out and promised to get back to him. She never did. He says that her statistic contradicted other numbers in her book. In 1996, Weitzman attributed the problems to data-entry and computer-analysis errors. “At some point after Weitzman’s book was published, some computer files were inadvertently corrupted,” the Chronicle reported.

Some problems that have developed in the welfare system are beginning to be addressed, but not in the United States. Prompted by revelations of Weitzman’s shoddy research, Australia is taking a wrecking ball to its entire family-law system and starting over from scratch, following a four-year plan of gradual implementation.

Once structured similarly to that of the United States, Australia’s child-support system was reformed after an inquiry to emphasize helping families function better in the hopes that they will remain intact.

“We want to change the culture of family breakdown from one of litigation to cooperation,” explains Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock, whose office is charged with implementing the reforms.

To the extent that the Family Court does get involved, it no longer tolerates an adversarial atmosphere in its proceedings, a revolutionary departure from nearly a thousand years of British Common Law. In divorce cases, court-appointed attorneys represent children to prevent them from becoming bargaining chips. The government is opening dozens of “Family Relationship Centers” around the country that will provide free counseling and other services. The centers assist in developing “parenting plans” for divorced or separated parents, without court intervention, except when the agreement is breached.

“These centers will be friendly, familiar places, like the local library or your local pharmacy or medical center—somewhere you can go to find information or support,” Ruddock says.

The reforms also emphasize shared responsibility.

“It means sharing the burden and enjoyment of day-to-day parental responsibilities, such as tucking them into bed, picking them up after school and helping them with their homework,” Ruddock says.

One feature of Australia’s new system that could gain traction here is a deliberate simplification of the law. After the law was first developed, the lawyers were sent home and it was rewritten in plain English.

Back in the United States, changes are piecemeal and reactionary.

Oregon now throws the book at custodial parents who interfere with visitation rights, with consequences just as harsh as those against non-custodial parents who don’t pay their child support.

Across the country, child-support enforcement is shifting from the county to the state level. The shift is expected to ease the confusion about owing money to more than one county. The process of federally certifying California’s new centralized system began in January 2007 and should be completed in 2008.

There are efforts to stop the diversion of child-support funds to the state and away from children, but the lack of progress is vexing to some. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., is for the second time co-sponsoring a bill to allow states to send all of the child support collected to the families that need it. The first time it was introduced, it never got out of the Ways and Means Committee. The sequel was referred to the subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support in February. The latest budget takes its effect into account, but the enabling legislation needed to actually change the rules is again on hold.

“This is a moral issue,” Moore says. “We know that when states are allowed to pass on all child support to the families that so desperately need it, the children win. But our measure is also common sense, since non-custodial parents—most of whom are fathers—are more likely to pay child support when they know the money will be used directly for their children, instead of for administrative expenses. Child support should do just that: support children, not the government.”

While the welfare system has its detractors, Yolo County Child Enforcement Director Mark Jones maintains the system is accommodating to both sides.

“These fathers are going to tell you that the system is inflexible, but it is not,” Jones says. “They can go to court to get modifications made.”

But that has proved to be easier said than done. Fewer than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffer a substantial drop in income are able to get the courts to reduce child-support payments. And because of the Bradley Amendment, federal law prohibits child-support orders from being retroactively modified. Maldonado says that poor fathers who try to get modifications usually can’t afford a lawyer to help them.

In an effort to help those who can’t afford the services of an attorney, each California county has a family-law facilitator. However, the services of the facilitator are restricted to telling parents how the family-law courts work, who to start a family-law case with, what forms to file and how to complete them. Access remains very limited in some counties. While Sacramento County’s family-law facilitator is open during regular court hours, in Alameda County, where Gay’s case is handled, the facilitator is only open Monday through Thursday for two and a half hours in the morning. Phone calls are accepted for only two and a half hours in the afternoon.

The family-law facilitator does not represent parents. Neither do the attorneys who work for the child-support-enforcement agencies. They represent only the agency—in its efforts to collect the money signed away by the mother, in the place where she is least able to advocate for herself: the welfare office.

In the two months since SN&R first talked to Darryl Gay, his situation has deteriorated, in no small part because of his encounters with child-support-enforcement authorities. He went to court to try to get his child-support payments reduced, and instead they were raised to $329 per month. However, more than $400 per month is being deducted from his paychecks. So he must again wrangle with the system—in Alameda, where it is only open a few hours a day—to straighten it out.

The lease on the apartment his sister had rented has since ended. Gay, who could not afford to take over the rent, moved into a single room in a building that is home to more than a dozen other single men. His rent is now $285 per month. This has put yet another kink into his efforts to stay involved with Tynea. He doesn’t want his daughter exposed to his new surroundings, so visits with her are more complicated and less frequent. The stress has taken a toll on him. He is visibly thinner and less talkative.

“I don’t know how I am going to handle her coming to see me,” Gay says. “I can’t have my 6-year-old daughter with me around 14 other guys I barely know.”

Gay’s economic misery won’t be ending anytime soon. He has at least 12 years of child-support payments to make, maybe more.