by Dr. Boyce Watkins – Scholarship in Action
I was on 1380 WAOK in Atlanta for an interesting interview this morning. The conversation revolved around child support payments and the “Financial Abortions” concept that my Senior Editor, Kirsten West-Savali, brought to my attention just a couple of months ago. The conversation expanded to child support in general, and I can say that I am clearly concerned about deadbeat parents who choose not to support their kids. I don’t care if he’s buying diapers and visiting your child every weekend; he should also be using a chunk of his paycheck to help you pay the bills related to taking care of that child.
But the child support system is in serious need of reform. In Atlanta over the holiday weekend, there were hundreds of parents sent to jail for non-payment of child support. While I don’t entirely oppose the idea of sending the law after parents who don’t pay, I’m not quite sure how putting parents in jail is going to help the child. Also, the law is quick to lock a man up for non-payment of child support, but they are not so interested in using their resources to help that father spend time with his kids.
I am an 18-year veteran of the child support system, and I’ve also taken responsibility for children who’ve been financially abandoned by their dads. Additionally, my own biological father never paid a penny in child support to my knowledge, so I was also a victim of a dead beat dad as well. So, I understand the frustrations of losing parental rights, and I also understand why dead beat dads need to be dealt with. The issue is a complex one, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that the child support system, in its current form, is more likely to destroy a family than to sustain it.
Here are some things that need to be changed about the child support system:
1) Greater accountability on where the money is spent: There is nothing more frustrating for a non-custodial parent than to pay hundreds (or even thousands) in child support, only to see that their child isn’t getting access to the money. I know this reality from experience, and I’ve also heard from countless dads (and moms) who’ve taken care of their responsibilities, only to have their child calling to request money for things they can’t afford.
Money paid in child support should be tracked in some way, perhaps with a debit card to record expenses or some other form of verification. A responsible parent is not paying child support for anyone to get their nails done. At the same time, custodial parents should be allowed to submit a budget showing the magnitude of household expenses. This is a clear reminder to the man paying $200 per month that this amount means almost nothing to a household that faces thousands of dollars per month in expenses – so no, your child isn’t going to have the entire check spent on new Air Jordans if his mother is trying to pay the light bill.
2) Solutions that strengthen families instead of punishing them: Jail should be part of the accountability process, I truly believe that. But jail should not be a catchall solution for every problem. Putting a parent in jail only helps the child if this punishment is supplemented with other methods to ensure that the relationship between father and child is strengthened as a result. If the father wants nothing to do with the child, that’s one thing, but if the father somehow feels that his parental rights have been trampled and stolen from him, then something should be done to secure visitation or even partial custody as a result of paying child support on time.
In far too many cases, one parent chooses to hijack the child-rearing process, micromanaging everything the other parent does (“I don’t want my child in the car with your girlfriend, but you can’t say a thing about my boyfriend driving him around”). It took two people to make the baby, so two people have the right to raise it.
Finally, garnishments and other solutions should be considered long before incarceration, and parents who are brought in by the police should be given an option to come up with a payment solution before being put in jail. The point is that locking a man up punishes both the children in his home and the children outside his home, so we must think carefully before indulging the temptations of the “incarceration nation” that America has become. Jail should be a last resort, and should also be part of a broader process to “encourage” men to become better dads.
3) Father’s rights should be laid on the table for discussion: I’ll never forget when I asked the mean woman at the child support office what I could do about the fact that I wasn’t able to see my child on a regular basis. Her response? “If you don’t pay, you can be sent to jail. But there’s nothing we can do about helping you to see your daughter.” Sometimes, parents who try to do the right thing are punished more than those who evade the system. Also, when a family struggles, we must grow beyond simply assuming that the man is always at fault – it usually takes two people to destroy a family, but in many black relationships, we are likely to hear just one side of the story.
In medicine, there is a “Patient’s Bill of Rights.” In child support court, there should be a “Parent’s Bill of Rights.” These rights should include the opportunity to spend time with your child, the right to representation to secure your parental rights, the right to accountability on where your money is spent, and maybe even the right to partial custody if you can’t afford to make child support payments. Most of us would agree that time spent with a child goes a lot further than money, and a baby should not be used as a little ATM machine.
The system should be modified to go after deadbeat parents with greater ferocity in order to protect children and responsible mothers. But it should also protect ethical, hard-working dads from being harmed by situations in which child custody is being used as a weapon of mass destruction. We learned over 200 years ago that there should not be taxation without representation. But as it stands, some parents are being hit hard financially every single month and are only rewarded with a loss of dignity, parental alienation and the stigma of being called a deadbeat just because you don’t live with your child. It’s time to start telling every side of the story.