Saint Kitts and Nevis
Posted - 29 Aug 2001 : 18:16:29
| The child-support conundrum
The criminalization of fathers is further consolidated through child-support burdens, which constitute the principal financial fuel of the divorce machinery, underwriting divorce and giving both mothers and the state further incentive to remove children from their fathers.
We often hear the imprecations of politicians and enforcement officials against fathers who fail to pay child support. What we do not hear is that child-support obligations are determined not by the needs of children but by the politics of interest groups involved in collection. Guidelines are generally set by the same agencies and courts who enforce and adjudicate them. Such de facto legislation by courts and enforcement agents raises serious questions about the separation of powers and the constitutionality of the process. Where government officials develop an interest in hunting "delinquents," it is predictable that they will find delinquents to hunt. The more onerous the child support levels, and the more defaults and arrearages that accumulate, the more demand there will be for coercive enforcement and for the personnel and powers required.
A presumption of guilt pervades courts and prosecutions, where "the burden of proof may be shifted to the defendant" according to a legal analysis by the National Council of State Legislatures. In clear violation of the US Constitution, courts have held that "not all child-support contempt proceedings classified as criminal are entitled to a jury trial," and "even indigent obligors are not necessarily entitled to a lawyer." Thus impoverished parents who lose their children through literally "no fault" of their own are the only citizens who – when they are fortunate enough to be formally charged and tried at all before being incarcerated – must prove their innocence without the help of an attorney and without the opportunity to present their case before a jury of their peers.
Federal policies (which provide incentive payments attached to each dollar of child support collected by state governments) give another reasons for the states channel all child-support payments questions through the machinery of the criminal justice system, so that they will show up on the relevant federal ledgers. This policy aggravates the criminalization of fathers, and encourages agencies to squeeze every dollar out of every available parent. The result is systematic bullying by courts and enforcement agents: a pattern of activity that is now too common to ignore.
In Milwaukee a father is hauled into court and threatened with jail when a 40-cent arrearage is compounded by penalties and late fees until it reaches to hundreds of dollars. Another fathers is arrested for not paying child support while he was a hostage for five months in Iraq. In Texas a father is exonerated of a serious crime after ten years on death row, to be presented with a bill for child support not paid during his imprisonment. A decorated hero of the Oklahoma City bombing is driven to suicide by hounding from child support agencies. In Nebraska and elsewhere men must pay support for the children who are produced by their former wives’ adulterous affairs. In Los Angeles, 350 orders are established each month based on mistaken paternity claims, but the DA insists the men must pay – even if the children are not their own. (Also in Los Angeles, two assistant district attorneys resign because of ethical scruples connected with child support enforcement policies). In Virginia child support is sought for 45-year-old "children," while in Kansas and California teenage boys are ordered to pay child support to grown women convicted of criminally raping them. In Indiana a father must pay to be shackled with an electric ankle bracelet and turn over three-fourths of his salary, ostensibly for a 21-year-old "child," while his 12-year-old goes without medical treatment. The list of such abuses is virtually endless. Are these merely anecdotes or occasional excesses of the system? That is possible, but if the abandonment of children by their fathers such a widespread problem, why are government agencies concentrating scarce resources on these absurd cases, rather than devoting themselves assiduously to the most flagrant abuses?
By Stephen Baskerville