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.
photo courtesy of thisvintagechica via Flickr