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Time to Overhaul Family Court

Time to Overhaul Family Court

When talking about the failings of our family law courts, we may place a lot of blame and point a lot of fingers, but rarely do we hear about efforts at systematic change.  Which is too bad, because child support laws, or more appropriately, the lack of equal enforcement of child support laws, coupled with perverse administrative incentives are helping ensure this issue remains divisive and explosive.

As previously reported here, more and more custodial decisions are breaking against working women.  In many respects, this should be considered a natural evolution of feminist work as women who work outside the home, and/or who are the primary breadwinners for their families find themselves under the same scrutiny as working and breadwinning fathers.

Take the issue of courts moving away from the traditional legal assumption that the mother should be the principal caregiver for young children and an administrative system that views financial support obligations as a means of making profit and its clear our system is broken.

Under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, Child Support Agencies that collect support payments (a portion of which usually goes to some federal obligation) have no legal obligation to make sure the money collected goes exclusively and directly to children.  Those state agency that collects the most amount of support payments over a given fiscal year is eligible to receive a bonus of millions of dollars.  In some states private banks administer the collection and distribution of support payment and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees doing so.  All these administrative costs get paid before a single penny goes to support a child.

Vying for those kinds of dollars leads to some interesting practices such as chasing payment from individuals confirmed by DNA tests to NOT be a parent, for example.  Or thousands of tales of mothers and children living on the brink of homelessness while the father continued to earn a six-figure income.  Men made homeless because they couldn’t afford to live on their wages after support payments were deducted.  Mothers and fathers disappearing after being crushed in court by support obligations and then humiliated when they could not afford those payments.  Children wondering what they did to contribute to this cycle.  There is nothing functional about a system that repeatedly, through uneven enforcement, keeps families in poverty and encourages the destruction of familial bonds.

A broken family shouldn’t mean a statistically much greater chance of living in poverty, but unfortunately for many it does.  The failures of our custodial arrangements mirror the failures in our financial support arrangements and can be traced back to an outdated and antiquated legal premise of a household divided.  Men and women no longer fall into tidy categories of primary caregiver and primary income earner–a change we should applaud and embrace.  Social science tells us our children are better off when these rolls are shared. 

But the law is slow to change and, when agencies and private enterprise risk losing money, that change is even slower to come.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  Encourage your state to support shared parenting legislation–efforts at redrawing the custodial and support arrangements to better reflect the reality of today’s families.  Single parents face enough challenges, fighting the courts and private banks to stay out of poverty shouldn’t be another.

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photo courtesy of thisvintagechica via Flickr

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19 comments

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1:02PM PST on Feb 9, 2011

The best interests of the children is to have a full time home and a full time parent. That need is best served by recognizing the natural bond between mothers and their children. Nature set up men to be able to assist as parents if she is unable to do her job, usually in a short term setting; that is not the same as saying men are or were ever meant to be natural parents (differentiated from the ability to pass on genes). This issue is best solved by:

A. Recognizing women's natural rights to the children they and they alone bear.
B. Not interfering with the mother-child bond UNLESS she is proven unfit by reason of addiction, abuse, neglect, etc.
C. Removing access to 'no fault' divorce legislation - that is the real enemy to intact families.
D. Stop perpetuating the 'rape culture' and all its social ramifications. Blaming women for what goes wrong in marriage and family life while barely giving the guys a tap on the wrist is wrong, as is its corollary - giving men unjust bonus points for saying they're 'interested' in the children - then women have to show themselves 10x better than they are to get equal weight in court!

5:15PM PST on Dec 10, 2009

I used to work in support division and I have brought judges to task, lawyers to their knees and women who get support to fraud court. It's a frustrating snakepit and the kids always lose. Fathers give the women cash, she says nothing about it to the caseworker, he doesn't pay support thinking the cash was it, he goes to jail, she gets away w/ it. Lawyers take their fees out of past due support (against the law where I was) and a judege OK'd it.... not on my watch he didn't! Children aren't weapons!! Parents need to quit using them as such!! I was a single parent while doing this job......

1:10AM PST on Dec 10, 2009

The court protects some abusive husbands and fathers -- if they don't look like obvious abusers, they can lie and get away with it.

8:57PM PST on Dec 9, 2009

It's way pass time to change the justice system top to bottom.

12:32PM PST on Dec 9, 2009

The justice system here is horrible, we need a more consistent system where rulings in one state for a certain crime should be the same in the next. Someone shouldn't have to pay X amount or be in jail for X amount of time while someone else in another state pay less and spend less time in jail.
Consistency will allow the system to work better and we would not see such different crazy outcomes for the same situation

12:03PM PST on Dec 8, 2009

Women continue to prefer less secure financial circumstances, even poverty, rather than continue a marriage is really is no longer viable.

11:42AM PST on Dec 8, 2009

Family is very important. Never let that value be misplaced by anything else.

1:03AM PST on Dec 8, 2009

"There is nothing functional about a system that repeatedly, through uneven enforcement, keeps families in poverty and encourages the destruction of familial bonds."

One might also wonder why we even have such a system.

12:58AM PST on Dec 8, 2009

"A child is a huge responsibility and study after study shows that children do best with a mother and a father involved in their upbringing."

What if the child has two moms or two dads?

12:51AM PST on Dec 8, 2009

Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!

we generate laws for EVERYTHING in North America. Seat belts, cell phones... everything. Yet we consistently avoid the uncomfortable decisions that would make our society a better place for everyone. This is definitely an area where a few simple "legal additions" to any marriage/partnership/union where children are involved, would do just that..

A child is a huge responsibility and study after study shows that children do best with a mother and a father involved in their upbringing. As a society we should also expect nothing less in the commitments made to that child's financial care and security.

Have the courts mandate SHARED parenting in ALL cases where no reason to the contrary, (i.e. abuse), can be shown to exist. In addition to this force responsibility for both parents to meet the commitments of financial and emotional needs until age 18.

Got a better job offer out of town? Too bad... pursue it later... be there first for the family you chose to have. Your share of child support preventing you from that new car? Too bad... buy another clunker and maintain your obligations!

Parenting is not a right, it is a responsibility! Let's truly, as equals, put our children first and be held by law accountable for our decision to have had them!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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Lindsay Spangler Lindsay Spangler is a Web Editor and Producer for Care2 Causes. A recent UCLA graduate, she lives in... more
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