Child support: public and private problem

by Jeanne Belovitch

Since Ronald Reagan signed into law last year the Child Enforcement Act, states across this country have been cracking down on parents who are behind n child support payments.

The law allows child support agencies to intercept a parent's federal or state tax refund and credit it to his or her delinquent account. In Illinois alone, the names of 42,000 delinquent parents have been given to the IRS. States also are embellishing the Child Enforcement Act with their own creative collection techniques in going after these large sums of arrearages. For example, percentages of unemployment insurance payments are being intercepted, businesses are cooperating with state agencies in forcing deductions from payrolls, and names of delinquent parents are being given to the media.

As Lynn Wardle, a Brigham Young University (BYU) law professor and advisor of BYU's Family Law Society said in a recent interview with the Salt Lake City Tribune, "Child support is no longer a private problem. Since 1965 the divorce reate has doubled, resulting in more single parent families dependent on a third party, a former husband and father, for support. The number of families on public assistance has also increased making child support a matter of public concern."

This collection fervor is well and good, and it is to the benefit of children whose well being is when payments are withheld. But does all this gegislation address the heart of the matter?

Why are so many non-custodial parents (who are mostly fathers) not making their support payments? Do custody arrangements and visitation rights influence how non-custodial fathers respond to child support? Researchers at several universities in the United States and Canada are looking for answers to these questions.

Recent studies have shown that non-custodial fathers who participate in joint custody parenting express a real commitment to their children in terms of financial and emotional support. In one study of 200 families, there was less than a 6% default on child support payments by joint custody parents. Also 85-90% of these families reported a "highly satisfactory" acceptance of joint custody for themselves and their children. In sole custody families studied, 72% of non-custodial fathers defaulted on child support payments.

In another survey of 168 divorced fathers, four out of five non-custodial fathers claimed they would voluntarily increase child support if they were given legal and physical custody and knew their children needed the increase. Four out of five non-custodial fathers also stated that they begrudged paying child support because of their treatment by the legal system.

Are these conclusions shocking? No. It stands to reason that when a non-custodial father in a sole custody family experiences power struggles with his former spouse masked as visitation disputes; anger and resentment over lack of accessibility in seeing the children; and a biased legal system, a common response is, "I won't give her any more money for the kids!" Unfortunately, children are the victims in this scenario. Sole custody can be fertile ground for the expression of anger, resentment, hostility, power struggles, and revenge in the form of delinquent child support.

Although there is no last word that joint custody is the panacea for the custody dilemma, joint custody does provide opportunity for increased communications, accessibility, involvement, commitment, and satisfaction. A non-custodial father and his children who are in a joint custody arrangement see each other on a regular basis without struggles over visitation rights, and the father's financial and emotional commitment is one of substance. There is no reason for this father to feel compelled to discontinue child support paymnents, unless there is an unexpected financial hardship.

Custody, visitation, and child support payments are tied into the same Gordian Knot. Legislation is attacking one dimension of the problem. It is up to the individual efforts of custodial and non-custodial parents in their daily lives to cut through this complex problem of delinquent child support in the United States. In turn, increasing numbers of children will receive the care and love they rightfully deserve.

Source: "Making Remarriage Work"; D.C. Heath Publishing; Lexington, MA; 1987