Kay E. Sherwood
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Two staff members from MDRC, Fred Doolittle and Kay Sherwood, went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the fall of 1991 to assess a consortium of Kent County agencies being considered as a site to test the Parents' Fair Share model. One of the consortium's strengths was its experience operating a program for unemployed noncustodial parents that was similar in purpose and design to the Parents' Fair Share concept. In this Absent Parent Support Program, for about three years prior to the MDRC visit, noncustodial parents who were delinquent in child support payments in Kent County were routinely ordered by child support hearing officers to participate in employment services, which generally meant a five-week job-finding workshop conducted by a local community education program at a large adult school building. It was at this workshop that the Doolittle/Sherwood team from MDRC found parents for the first of the focus group interviews summarized below -- "I Would If I Could."
On the day of this focus group, 12 parents -- all fathers -- were attending the community education workshop and chose to participate in the discussion. Eight of the 12 were black; four were white. It was Tuesday of the second week of the workshop schedule, which meant that, of the 27 parents who showed up for the start of the workshop eight days earlier, those easily able to get jobs with the type of assistance provided in the workshop were no longer participating. Thus, the interviewers met with a fairly discouraged -- and apparently disadvantaged -- group of men, several of whom had been through the workshop before, sometimes more than once; these men had been "caught" for nonpayment of child support and had been unemployed on previous occasions during the last three years. No staff members from any of the Absent Parent Support Program agencies were present during the interview.
The second group interview summarized below is very different from the others reported on in this document. The title, "When the Money Isn't the Issue," suggests one theme of the discussion: Noncustodial parents have concerns about the child support system that go beyond their financial obligations. The parents interviewed on this occasion were members of a fathers' rights group and were invited by the chief local child support administrator to the discussion, which was held at the offices of the child support enforcement agency. None of the groups interviewed in Baltimore, New York City, or Grand Rapids was chosen for representativeness, but the members of the fathers' rights organization could be expected to have more negative views than the others of the child support system, since that they had joined an organization whose mission was to change the system. The men who participated in this discussion -- there were four, all of them white -- were also better off than those who were interviewed at the Absent Parent Support Program in Grand Rapids; they were all employed, although they reported that a third to a half of the members of their organization could use help with employment. A fifth participant in the group interview was a woman who had experienced the child support system under several conditions: She was the wife of one of the noncustodial fathers interviewed, the custodial mother of a child by a previous marriage, and a recipient of child support.
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One of the most troublesome aspects of child support is the divergence between what many noncustodial parents say about what they should and want to do and what they actually do. Among the 12 fathers attending the job-finding workshop of the Absent Parent Support Program, where their presence signaled noncompliance with the formal child support system, as well as unemployment, none rejected the principle of providing financial support for their children. Not surprisingly, one theme of their stories was hard luck losing jobs, falling behind, and getting discouraged. But a key question for custodial parents and children, and for public policy, is: Would they pay if they were working? Other parts of the discussion with the unemployed fathers produce a mixed answer. "I would if I could" is what most of those interviewed said, but between the lines lie hints that this would not always happen.
Billy S. had worked for a national shipping company for 14 or 15 years. He saw his child support problems as directly related to his unemployment problems:
When I were paying and I were working it weren't no problem Don't you know I would be happy, more than happy to have a job this morning? What you gonna do? Maybe some in here not want to have a job. Maybe some here maybe just in here to knock away time, you know? But I went through this training it was a six months' training and I still got my certificate in my hand Nothing.
Others in the group explained their presence at the job search workshop in similar terms. George W. said:
We're all here for the same purpose. That's because of the [child support enforcement agency]. We all have different stories. Mine is that I had a job. But through a labor dispute been on strike for over 18 months. Due to the 18 months on strike, I'm here whether I like it or not. I hope some time, some day this dispute will end one way or another, but right now I've got a big monkey on my back.
George W. was caught in a situation that he thought would not get resolved until either the strike at his company was settled or the company dissolved or succeeded in busting his union, because no one wanted to hire a union member on strike, he said. But he also described the changes in the job market that had taken place since he started work:
Getting a job, when I was coming out of school looking for a job, you just went and asked an employer for a job and sign and fill out a simple application Back then, to be a white-collar worker you had to have a resume. Today, the blue-collar worker also has to have a resume, which we don't know anything about. We're not used to it. We've never done it. And when you've worked at one position for this many years, there's no need even knowing anything about a resume because you're here financially, this is where you're gonna want to stay at.
Milt B.'s story was less complicated, the way he told it:
I had a business, I was paying $132 a week, you know. I lost my business I closed it up cause I got hurt. So I fell behind on my child support. But I still paying something like $50 every two weeks they set up this system [the Absent Parent Support Program] so you don't go to jail. You be anywhere else, you'd be in jail.
Other men in the group talked about getting jobs and losing jobs. Rick J., for example, said:
I was in here before, you know, something like 18 months ago. When they first started me here, it was my first time ever come to this school. And then I told them, it was on the third day, I told them I said "I'm not going to be here" because I had already put in applications to two different places and I knew these places were going to hire me But I screwed it up myself cause I went to work for my brother and he lost his company. That's why I'm here today.
It was Roger J.'s third time going through the program: "The first time I went through this program, they helped me a lot, I got a nice-paying job. But I'm the one that screwed it up, but whatever it takes."
Many of the men in the group wanted very much to go to work. Billy S. described how frustrating the job search process is, in spite of the help provided by the job-finding workshop:
Sometime it just seem to be a little bit slow for us. You know, cause we just want to get out there and get to work. Get our lives back rolling again, you know. It's kinda hard to be patient and it's just a patient game that's going, you know.
Lloyd D., Rick J., and John D. were all frustrated with the process of calling employers who might not have openings, making many applications, getting turned down:
Lloyd D.: If these companies would just come out here and just, you know, pick people for a job, it would be a lot easier. We can call, we can call a hundred times and they'll tell us you know, from these job leads [provided by the workshop] and then we'll call and they'll say: "Hey, we're not taking applications right now." You go out there, try to put in applications and everything. It were hassle. But it works. Sooner or later.
Rick J.: Or it could be like temporary service, too. Place you into a job. You know, where you could work your way onto the payroll.
John D.: Just send us to a job. Hook up a job where they would deal with people like us. Instead of going all through. These guys need jobs. That would be a lot better.
Would these men pay child support if they were working? There were many statements in support of George W.'s summary: "I don't think anybody's running away from paying child support." Speaking about his own behavior, George W. said:
If I had it, I'd pay With my age, working at one job for this many years, it's not that I'm a job jumper or anything of that nature, I'm not running away from my responsibility as far as paying child support It's just due to circumstance that we're here.
From Milt B., who was separated from the mother of his son: "The bottom line is, it's yours, you pay for it. That's the bottom line." Rick J., who is responsible for child support for two children and has a new family, had a similar view: "You lay, you pay." John D. said: "We don't mind paying it's our kids, we're gonna pay, any man's going to tell you that We willing to take on responsibility."
Milt B. offered evidence of his willingness to provide for his child:
My kid's wearing some Nike tennis shoes that cost $165 and he's six years old. My son, he got a motorcycle. He's only six years old, he got a 750 motorcycle. I got a 900, his mother got a 1000. He don't want for nothing. [He turned to another of the fathers.] You know my son. He don't want for nothing. He got go-carts You know my son wearing Nike tennis shoes, Jordache jeans. Pair of jeans cost as much as mine do $35.
Billy S.'s reaction to this was:
You know what you ought to do, man? You ought to do like I'm going to do when I can get myself right. You ought to go and just get custody of your kids if you paying and paying like that. Cause that's like I was doing for my kids when I were working. I would pay this every week automatic just come out of the check I don't care what the other guys thinking about their kids, I thinking bout my kids. I come in and my kid, my son, stand six foot three, come over and say: "Daddy, you got some money, I got to go out, I want to get me this." "Cmon, boy, [yes]." I do not care; I'm paying this money cause this is my son.
Their current lack of income is only one of the reasons that many of men interviewed are not fulfilling their child support obligations. While these reasons were seldom explicitly stated in terms of "I don't pay because," the fathers talked about the child support system, and sometimes the mothers of their children, in ways that often sounded like: "If I had the money and it were up to me, I might not pay because "
For some, there is a crucial distinction between complying with the formal child support system and making direct payments to the mothers and/or buying things for their children. While Milt B. claimed to be a lavish provider for his son, he was not doing all of it through the formal child support system and, in fact, he objected strongly to the legal mechanisms for child support, which he thought were unnecessary for fathers who were in contact with their children: "It's another thing to pay the [child support enforcement agency] and see your kid, too. I see my kid every day." After describing the expensive clothes and other items that he had provided, Milt B. volunteered even bragged that he was doing this outside the system:
I don't give the [child support enforcement agency] all my goddamn money. No way What I can't see is why you want to pay them. I can see you owe a hospital bill or something like that, right? Whyn't you just send the money to the hospital bill? You give the [child support enforcement agency] money, your wife don't get the money for three weeks later.
Clark S. had a different explanation for his defiance of the system. He told a complicated tale of the child support enforcement agency's failure to take his money:
They screwed up at first. [Everyone laughs.] They did, seriously. When they first told me they was going to start garnishing my check, I had left the first job I was working at. So now all this paperwork done, they found out where I was working at, I talked to the man and worked out my payments. Now they sent me some more paperwork, but from the previous job that I had, not from the job that I was at then. So they messed me up. Cause they could have been taking money. I was at the job four years They didn't do anything. And I wasn't gonna say: "Well, hell, come and take care of this" cause that's money I had to survive on.
As Clark S. explained it, when the child support enforcement agency finally caught up to him, he lost his job, and he blamed the child support system for his accumulated debt:
They put me in the hole I should not have to report to them [because the state has your social security number] They can always find where you are, at your job I'm trying to live They could have done that so long ago it's pathetic. They try so hard to take your money, they should be able to do it.
Two other men in the group reported situations that could easily have been the result of years of noncompliance with the child support system. Robert D., a soft-spoken man who had difficulty getting into the discussion, made his statement several times before he was recognized: "I owe $14,000." At one time, he had had $18,000 in child support arrears and he was intrigued by a rumored (but nonexistent) method of discharging child support debts: "They have a new thing they bringing out, you can go to the penitentiary and stay two years, and you don't have to pay no more child support." Robert D. was 37 years old, with a child age 20; his "baby" was 15.
Roger J., who was on his third time through the job-finding workshop, was about $8,000 in arrears on child support, and his noncompliance had interrupted his life considerably:
I'm just getting tired of getting locked up every so often, every eight months or so. I don't have no bad record, no record at all. But I just keep getting locked up for child support, that's the main thing.
The idea of paying child support to discharge a welfare debt does not sit well with some fathers, and has little to do with their sense of themselves as providers for their children. Many of the men's families are on welfare, and while some do not recognize the public assistance as their debt, most believe that the main reason the child support agency pursues them persistently is because of the welfare system's payments to their families. For example, Milt B. claimed: "It's the welfare they take half of that money that you give them. I'm paying $132 and she only get like maybe $50 The welfare is pushing the issue. It's the welfare, man." Roger J. demonstrated what seemed to be a common understanding among the men about the connection between their child support arrearages and welfare: "Every time they get a girl a check, that's just money that's added on to what you owe."
The local child support enforcement agency came in for a lot of criticism from the men interviewed in this group. It sometimes seemed to be the source of all their troubles, and certainly was considered the source of a great deal of pressure in their lives. As Robert D. put it: "Yeah, [the child support system] that's the number one racket." John D., who estimated his child support arrears at $600, said that "it's hectic" trying to keep up child support payments, pay off past child support debts, and have money for themselves and/or their new families. "That's what's killing us," he said:
Child support, you know, it's still high we're not working. Why don't they work with us if they want to work with us so much, why don't they try and lower that so we can start work it won't be so hectic It's still going up.
Emblematic of the father's feelings about the child support system was John D.'s statement about the attractive marble-floored building where the offices of the agency are housed: "All of us can say that we paid for that building," which was followed by Milt B.'s observation that "we ain't through paying for it." There were several kinds of complaints: (1) The child support enforcement people make mistakes in their accounting and procedures that fathers end up paying for; (2) they treat fathers without respect and understanding; and (3) the system does not deal with the problematic behavior of custodial parents; compared to mothers, fathers are treated unfairly.
John D. believed that his child support payments were set high (at $100 per week) because he missed that "day when the paperwork went down"; he didn't know he had to go and that "got the judge against me." George W., who was on strike, had a child support order for $114 a week for three minor-age children, which included some payment on arrearages. He focused on the child support enforcement agency's methods for ensuring that child support was paid first:
The [child support enforcement agency] wants their money just for their books They even take out in advance That's all they're concerned with, keep their books straight. They say: "Well, if you don't make that certain amount, we'll take less out," but it doesn't work that way because the way they interpret it to the employer, they've got to have their money. Even when I worked and I had slow weeks, the [child support enforcement agency] got their full amount and I walked home with payslips saying zero. And they didn't say: "Sorry." They didn't give me any money back. I also paid in reverse. They took out more money so my arrearage was ahead, four or five hundred dollars. They didn't come to me and say: "Hey, you're paying too much here." I had to go to them. Once they figured it out, they said: "Aw, you're right." I said: "O.K., I want that money back." They said: "No, we can't give it back to you, because your ex has to have money for the week whether you're ahead or behind and so you still have to pay. The only thing is, you won't pay as much. We still have to take it out." So they never gave me any money back they lessened up for a while to try and catch up to make it a little more even, balance out."
Many of the fathers interviewed resented the treatment they got from the child support bureaucracy. The impersonal nature of child support "enforcement" was one major grievance, characterized by different fathers in these ways: "The court system is treating us like criminals." "The mother and children are all human, the father, they place him as a piece of machinery: Work. Pay." "Always saying, `You owe, you owe.'"
But the attitude and behavior of the child support enforcement agency staff aggravated the men just as much. At times, they seemed to be describing "us and them" interactions that were made more difficult by class, race, and gender differences. One of the men argued for a type of child support enforcement agency counselor more like themselves:
They don't need nobody just come out of school take these [counseling] jobs [at the child support enforcement agency] and telling these men cause they owe child support. They don't need no kinda counselor up there, they need somebody -- like George W. here -- know how to communicate with us, because someone that don't been through this kinda life We all know that that's their jobs, you know, and they treat us just like that those ladies that's their job, they don't like us.
Women were rarely blamed for the fathers' problems in this group (perhaps because there was a female interviewer present), but three different conflict situations between men and women were discussed. Explaining what the interviewers would be likely to hear from guys who do not pay, George W. described the similarities among divorced fathers:
You're gonna hear the same story no matter where you go the same story, along with, in any divorce there's problems. Probably each one of us has the same problem Like for example mine is: I'm divorced. I did not ask for a divorce, I am divorced. And I will pay my child support, no problem. The problem comes in at visitation, in most cases, it's visitation Why do I have to pay when I don't have visitation?
George W. wasn't confident that the child support money he paid was really going to his children:
The [child support enforcement agency] will receive that money I don't care how long it takes to pass it on to your ex-spouse, that money is supposedly to be used for child support, the word is child support. But how many spouses will take that money herself and use it for her own pleasure, the kids still do not get things that they need? They're on our case constantly to pay that money, but when we ask the child support enforcement agency to we don't mind paying it, that isn't our problem the problem is that money that is being paid to that spouse, where is that money going? They will not account for that money.
Clark S., who thought the child support system ought to have been able to find him without his help, did not believe that he should have had an obligation in the first place:
The thing with me is, I didn't even know if I was going to be a father because she wasn't going to tell me, and she would not let me participate really in doing nothing for [my son]. I see him all the time. Every time I see him: "Does he need anything?" "No, he don't." So why should I pay child support? She did it out of spite.
In addition to believing that the mother of his child had the baby in order to make him pay, Clark S. explained that he had been advised by staff from the local department of social services not to voluntarily consent to paternity acknowledgment. The fact that establishing legal paternity by blood test and court hearings took years reinforced his negative attitude toward paying child support.
Roger J., who had been attracted to the idea of discharging his child support debt by spending two years in the penitentiary, objected to paying child support because of the life circumstances of the mother of his children:
I see my kids off and on. She done moved out of state, then came back, moved out of state, came back, and it was an understanding a couple of years ago that if a woman moved out of state, or you had a kid that was mentally ill or something, that you wouldn't have to pay child support. But what I'm getting at is that the woman that I got kids by, she's married, her name has changed entirely different, so she married this guy, he's sitting at home right now while I'm at school, and if I'm paying anything the check comes in his name. She get a welfare check, you know, but since he's supposed to be the man of the household, the check comes in his name No, he didn't adopt the kids What I feel is that she's carrying his name, but the kids they still have my name, but the check that comes to her from welfare, he has hold over that check, which is for those kids.
There was a great deal of discussion about jail time as the penalty for failure to comply with the child support system. These men thought it was a reality. (In Kent County, 30-day sentences for contempt of court are sometimes used in "tough cases.") Some, like Milt. B. ("you be anywhere else, you be in jail"), were probably in the job-finding workshop because they thought jail was the alternative. For example, Louie H. explained his presence this way: "It's something we have to do, something we have to pay back." Some thought it did not make sense to send a father to jail because he didn't pay: "If I go to jail, how you going to get my money?"
Although the men in the job-finding workshop praised the workshop leader and saw much value in the first week of instruction, during which they learned about resumes and cover letters, they disliked the limited nature of the assistance and the feeling of being recycled through the program for no purpose. Clark S., among others, thought that the child support enforcement cycle was a kind of social control mechanism:
Camaraderie I'd have the parents working together on this, along with a counselor know what they doing cause like I said, you know, it gets tough. We sit in here we just sit in here making phone calls. We don't do that, after five weeks we back in here. It's really not It's nothing. It's like something for them to do just to make sure that we in check. That's all it is, it's like we up under they thumb. We can't do nothing. We don't find a job we on probation.
There were a few suggestions for improving the self-directed job search approach emphasized in the Absent Parent Support Program. Early in the group interview, John D., Rick J., and Lloyd D. recommended bringing companies that were actually hiring into the school where the job-finding club was held to select men for their job openings. Toward the end of the interview, John D. connected work and paying child support by suggesting that noncustodial parents should be able to work at community service jobs that would reduce their obligations:
Like you go to work off a fine and you got to do so many community hours or something like that. It should be some kind of system like that where you can work some of that money off or do whatever you can Should have a program going, be paying something towards it at the same time Should be more to it than just this. Should be working toward that money, too.
For many of the men, community service was unacceptable. Billy S. had an idea that the wage rate would be $1.65 an hour; others thought it would be very low and they would have nothing to survive on themselves. John D. revised his suggestion to make his scheme "optional, for these guys who wanted to." In response, Rick J. came back to the idea of matching the unemployed fathers to jobs directly:
They should just hook us up with a factory and have us going to work, pay you a paycheck and they take out Six dollars an hour, eight hours a day, even if we have to work Saturday That way we make money, plus overtime, getting experience, on-the-job training, and we get done there we can go to another job after that.
Entangled with their complaints about the child support system were hints about how it could work better for them. John D., who said his obligations made his life "hectic," also felt that fathers should get some kind of credit toward their child support obligations for making the effort to search for a job through the program:
You owe that's what I'm thinking about. They claim that you owe, that's the problem. We should be able to go through this workshop and work towards that, work some of the money off while we're in here. The way we're going, we're always going down and they say five weeks [the length of required participation in the job-finding workshop] without ever getting a job. We don't mind paying I think they should be working with us to help us get somewhere even if we had to go to school and knock off five bucks or ten bucks, or whatever start knocking it off until we get to work, to better ourselves You owe, that's the main thing.
Being treated with more understanding and respect by the child support agency staff was the focus of most suggestions, although Rick J. had a novel idea. He wondered why his obligation couldn't be financed like a car loan:
What I want to know is how come you can't pay it off for 18 years The whole thing I mean all your payments. Add up all your payments it's like for me I owe $34,000 if I could pay it off for 18 years but you can't do that. This person told me it's cause the cost of living goes up each year I'm saying if there's a possible way to get a loan or something you know, like financing a car.
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Keith M.: "If people can't see their kids, they shouldn't have to pay child support Why would you pay if you don't see your kids?"
Jeffrey B.: "If you don't see your kids, that's part of why you had the kids is to be able to see them, play with them and have a little say in their life and what they do and where they go and things, and if you don't have that, they aren't really your kids."
These statements from members of the fathers' rights group interviewed by Doolittle and Sherwood characterize some of the resentment that noncustodial parents have toward the child support system perhaps a dominant source of resentment for the parents who are financially able to pay. There is a quid pro quo in child support for these parents: "If I pay child support, I should be able to see my kids" and "I do pay child support and, therefore, I should be able to see my kids" are alternative constructions of Keith M.'s and Jeffrey B.'s statements. The other fathers' rights group members interviewed in Grand Rapids would certainly have agreed with these alternatives. In fact, creating an explicit tie between child support and visitation in Michigan family law is a chief goal of the organization.
But for the four men who spoke to the interviewers, none of these statements puts the emphasis in the right place emotionally. First and foremost, these men wanted to see their children and play the role of father, despite their divorces, and they said they were satisfied to pay child support if they could do that. Getting access to their children was at the root of their complaints about the child support system and their attempts to change it. Their inability to be with their children and be the parents they want to be causes these men pain, and produces in them a sense of helplessness. But the fact that they are forced to pay child support on top of being denied what they consider their parental rights makes them angry.
At the end of the interview, summarizing what it means to be a father, the men described what hurts. Jeffrey B. said:
What I miss most of anything of not being married like I was when I came home from work, those kids were there and they come out saying: "Daddy, Daddy" and then we played. And that was taken away. I've never seen my kids come home from school. I've never gotten to see them leave for school, cause they were younger when we got divorced. Once in a while I'd wake up and hear them playing and stuff and then at three o'clock when it was time to get up they'd come in and wake me up. That's the best way to be woken up is to have your kids come in and jump on the bed and say: "Dad, it's time to get up, let's play." For that to all be taken away, that's almost like taking your fatherhood away cause that's what it is to be a father. Sure you work, and you try to supply money for your family and like that, but yet those kids are going to be there every day for you. And all of a sudden, just because your ex-wife don't want to be married any more, that's all taken away.
David D. gave an example of the incidents that remind noncustodial fathers how little, sometimes, they are able to do as parents:
I think being included and involved in the children's life is what it's about like when they have activities that you can be a part of, at least notified that you can be a part of Do you know that fathers, unless you have it written and legal, can't have access to their children's school grades? I called my child's school and I couldn't have that I'm not her parent, I'm not the custodial parent stuff like that that's a sin. I mean I'm paying to raise these kids it's my child and everything, and why can't I know what's going on in their life, you know? Just being involved in what's going on, being included and not excluded because of it, things like that.
Miller M. described being a father this way:
I think just simple things that you do with your kids, that's being a father It isn't paying money to a court system being a father, it's taking a walk with them, putting them to bed at night, just listening to "Hey, what did you do today, what happened to you?" That's being a father, you know, a parent put them to bed, share what your feelings are, you share what your thoughts are, what's going on, what is it you'd like to do in the future. You are not only part of their present, you're part of their past and part of their future irregardless of what the current scene is, how much money you're paying. You're part of a spiritual nature we're not just money.
Leading up to these vignettes of lost family happiness were long explanations for the interviewers of how things go wrong in divorces, and how the child support system fails fathers and children, with illustrations drawn both from the personal experiences of the people interviewed and from the experiences of members of the fathers' rights group who were not present. While the stories provide a useful perspective on some fathers' concerns, it was also apparent that the people interviewed had practice in telling their stories and a great deal of experience with the group format. The exchanges that follow provide a view of a support group in action, with its catharsis, sharing, and signals of agreement. They also suggest the similarity of opinion and language that often results when people self-select for participation in groups.
All of the fathers interviewed were divorced, as was Sharon D., whose marriage to David D. in the fathers' rights group was her second. The conflicts between custodial and noncustodial parents who divorced were, for the fathers, aggravated by the treatment they got from the child support system. According to David D., any new program, like Parents' Fair Share, would have an uphill battle with some fathers:
One thing you obviously got to do something not only for these dads who did not have jobs, but overcoming their hostility toward the rest of the system. Regardless of what politicians and everybody else will tell you everything is against the fathers for the most part it's another B problem you gonna have to overcome the fact that the guys have so much anger cause everything is against them.
The other thing is the fact that you get a lot of, majority of the mothers out there that want as much as they can get and when that's not enough, they want more and they want more and they want more and keep on wanting That's what the guys are getting sick of People aren't really complaining about the child support so much, it's the visitation part. They don't get enough time with their kids, and you feel like you're buying it.
Jeffrey B., who had joint custody of his children, also saw the system as favoring mothers:
When I started out, I didn't even know what it was all about. I was more worried about getting my kids than I was the money part of it. When my ex-wife left, she wouldn't let me see the kids at all and so I went to court the first time around and they said: "Well, you get such-and-such and you pay such-and-such." Kinda bad I got to pay to see my kids, you know, and I've seen a lot of fathers eventually give up because they're paying so much money and they're seeing them so little, they're better off starting over with another family, so most of them walk away.
Talking about his own situation in another county, Miller M. emphasized fathers' visitation rights:
I would say fathers don't need another job, they just need their own children. The letter says this [child support] will be enforced by the Court and you'll be jailed or arrested or found in contempt if you don't follow this order. I get the same copy of an order that says your rights to visitation are such-and-such days, so many times, but the enforcement of that right is: "Well, just go see your psychologist."
Keith M. was concerned about the expense of two households:
There's a lotta fathers well like myself [whose kids are out of state]. I get to see my child twice a year, Christmas and summertime. The rest of the time, I don't know what she's doing. I don't know how she's being brought up. It's scary. You have to build a work program that [recognizes], Hey, men have feelings, they love their children, they want to be a part of their kids' life. The support is going come if they do find them a job. It's going to be tagged right on. But, that it be also apportioned so they can afford to live and have a place when they do have their children, and also feed their children when they do have them, and that support get reversed.
Second families were Sharon D.'s major concern:
Having a second family there should also be considered that the man has another family and he's just an honest, decent guy that's just trying to be happy so leave him alone. But these other ex-wives I see this in a lot of situations they see that the husband now has a new woman and he's happy, and gosh what can I do to screw that up and make him miserable? And it works, it really works. And the child support part of it, there's so many families second families out there that are scraping because of the child support, and I'm not against child support, but reasonable, you know. Why should that second family have to suffer because there's kids over here? Sometimes there's kids in that second family, too.
David D.: My kids just recently moved to California. Two months ago I was told that they moved out of state. My son asked me before they left, that if he could come back and see me a lot, and I told him I just can't afford to have you flying back and forth and it just shocked the hell right out of him, he said: "Dad, why do you gotta give her any money. You know she works. "Joe" that's his stepdad "he has a lotta money. Why do you have to pay?"
Expanding on what he said about fathers' hostility toward the child support system, David D. said that fathers' concerns about paying are centered on whether they see their money benefiting their children:
I think that you'd find the majority of fathers, whether they have a job or don't have a job, have no problem paying support. [It's] the way it's brought on and the way it's used I think I pay too much already and my ex is trying to get more, but if we could see the money more going to the kids, I'd pay more. I don't have a problem with that. But to have the ex's lifestyle go up and have mine go down and my kids' stay the same, that's not what the whole thing is about here. So many fathers have the situation where the kids come home for a weekend, you're providing clothes for that weekend because they are not allowed to bring any clothes over. I currently pay $125 a week and when I got to spend $144 on a jacket for the weekend that he usually will take back to their house, that adds up Decent fathers which are more than most people realize they no problems paying this money, but it's child support. It's used as ex-wife support, but it's supposed to be child support.
Jeffrey B. explained why a recent meeting that the fathers' rights group held with officials of the local child support system focused on accountability for child support monies:
The whole thing was accountability accountability as to what they do with the money, you know receipts just like if you got kids that are in a foster home or something, those parents got to bring receipts as to where they spend the money, but yet a mother can't do that To me, if they had some sort of accountability which really isn't that hard. I keep my receipts from my food and stuff like that, that wouldn't be too hard to do even if they just told you to bring in one month's worth of accountability for a year, they may find out that maybe child support shouldn't be that high.
Following Jeffrey B.'s discussion of accountability, Keith M. explained that the chief local child support enforcement official says the staff that would be needed for such accounting procedures are not available. Jeffrey B. disagreed. He saw the problem as one of bureaucratic inefficiency:
They do [have the staff], but they've got to utilize their hours a little more. I just went through an evaluation [for custody] that shoulda took less than two months and it was two years long. And they done it twice because the first time the person that done it screwed it up.
Keith M. pointed out the implications of experiences like Jeffrey B.'s for the "amount of legal fees needed" by noncustodial parents to deal with the child support system. He also believes that air travel or transportation needs should affect child support and programs to help noncustodial parents find jobs.
If you were to find a person a minimum wage job and his child lives in California, New York or wherever, he couldn't seek his child, he's at a disadvantage and already he's building up more hatred towards his ex-wife because of that and it's showing towards his children, or hers. Just finding a person a job is not enough There should be additional allowances and also more help in the system to be able to help that person see his kids.
David D. added to his wife's (Sharon's) comments about the amount of money needed to both support children and the noncustodial parent:
Take a guy that's not working. Obviously he can't live on his own. He's got to be living with parents, friends, whatever like that because he can't support himself. You get that guy, say, a $20,000 a year job and out of that comes child support, he still can't live He still, once you put support, he still has to live with somebody. Twenty grand's not a bad income, really, but all of a sudden that 20 grand becomes $15,000 or $14,000 after taxes and after child support comes out about $8,000 or $9,000 in his pocket. He still cannot afford to live. This is the problem I see with what you guys [Parents' Fair Share] are trying to do here. The situations where the kids are on government help they're still gonna be there, somehow something's gotta be there because it can't be done, to pay the amount of money we fathers have to pay and still be able to live on your own and, God forbid, having to start another family.
Jeffrey B. illustrated:
And right at first, too like when my ex and I filed for divorce, I had a house payment fortunately we didn't have a car payment, they thought it was bad that I had to move back in with my folks to live. Well, I showed them exactly what I had left after I got done paying child support and stuff. I had less than $80 a week to live on, so how does somebody expect you to go out and rent a $400 apartment, which is about what it would take here let alone eat and everything else Guys get caught in the middle, so why should I work 40 hours a week and not make ends meet? Why not live on public assistance and not make ends meet what's the difference? That's probably where a lot of guys would come from.
Fathers' attempts to pursue custody and win seemed to be a particularly frustrating experience. Keith M. reported that fathers who were never married to the mothers of their children had an easier time of it than divorced men:
We did have a couple in our group, of paternity cases it seemed to be easier for them as a nonmarried individual to get custody than people that are divorced going fighting through the law it seems to take 10 times longer and go nowhere, they have some major problems.
Talking about his own extended custody battle, Jeffrey B. focused on how both the process and its outcome didn't make any sense:
It was two years back and forth with the [child support agency], the judge kept throwing it back. Well, couple more years and my kids will be out of school I don't understand why they keep throwing it back [The judge] give us joint legal and joint physical custody, but I only see my kids every other weekend and one day during the week. How can I be in a close, nurturing relationship with my kids when I only see them 48 hours every other weekend and 4 hours during the week? It don't make sense, it don't add up.
Keith M. described the quid pro quo -- child support for visitation -- as one way that divorced men and women understand their positions in a battle, except that the men do not have equal weaponry any more:
There isn't any [public assistance] for men. For a guy, he's at a total loss, he doesn't only lose his kids [in a divorce], a lot of the women who do custodial care use that as a weapon the women will use visitation and the only alternative men used to have was child support as a weapon. Now it's mandatory, it's yanked right out of their check no matter what but still the noncustodial parent's always at a disadvantage, always. No matter which way he tries to see he can't get there. The custodial parent can move away to another state to evade him or her trying to see the children and in many, many cases the children are turned against the father or the mother the noncustodial parent.
The people from the fathers' rights group had much more to say about the problems of the child support system than about how to correct those problems, but their response to a program that would help unemployed fathers was generally positive. Keith M. focused on the issues that would arise in a program targeting unemployed fathers:
Society does not envision men as good parents and good fathers to raise and nurture a child There's a lot more women working and a lot more men at home taking care of the kids This is not being recognized. If a guy does find a job, he's going to have to find sitters for the kids.
Jeffrey B. referred to the type of media coverage that good fathers hate: "Donahue had one the other day. Child support evader." Keith M. continued in this same vein:
That's a major problem because some of the good guys that have paid and paid, see their kids, do everything they can, are getting punished because of the guy that's $3,000 or $4,000 behind on his child support and that's a never-ending story right there. For your work program, that's got to be envisioned because that's where you find not just the hatred, but the holding back, the hostility, the build-up. I mean how's a guy going to do good on it, in starting finding a job if he has to put up with all of this and can't see his children.
Jeffrey B. emphasized two-earner/two-caretaker families, even when they are divorced:
I think it would be good, too talking about the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent, trying to find them both jobs. What it would be nice to do is try to find alternating jobs to where one parent's working and the other parent's watching the kids. I still think that the more time a parent's got with their children, the better they feel about themselves. The better the kids feel about themselves, the more secure the kids are going to feel. To me, rather than having a mother, a custodial parent working and having day care or somebody watch the kid, why not have the other parent watch the kids? It's free, they get to love and nurture those kids, that's why I think the best way to do it is to have both of them get jobs.
Keith M. wanted a different split of responsibilities, too:
Not only alternating, but what you have to take into account, too, is child care. If both parents, with the rising cost of inflation, have to work, and let's say they have joint custody and they're living in the same school district, if they have to work and the children have to be taken care of by child care, that should be split and if you are going to push for a work program, also ask for assistance from all the other individual funded services, like United Way, so they will help noncustodial parents and custodial parents nonbiased, it should not matter if it's a man or woman.
Miller M. brought this discussion of what to do to improve the system back to the reasons that fathers would want to work and pay child support:
If you're talking about getting jobs for fathers, the motivation would be custody, not the job itself, but actually an equal chance at custody. And the parents' rights being enforced. That would be the incentive of getting off welfare or not having a job or whatever, it's having the children.
David D. reiterated his opinion that most fathers want to do the right thing, and talked about what it would take to turn these intentions into actions:
Most fathers or noncustodial parents would prefer having a job and paying their support, if they could still live, as opposed to not having a job and not paying their support. Most fathers really want to take care of their children as long as they can live their own life, because there's a very large majority of the people who get divorced get remarried and have another family. Its a real burden on a [second] family if there's a family you're supporting its financially difficult.
Keith M: For a work program, it's the way you approach people and say, look, our services are going to help fathers, or noncustodial parents, get a job to help them see their children more and pay their child support. If that vision comes true where all the services come together It's going to have to see the need that the father needs to nurture his children, he wants to be near them You pull that away, he's not going to care if he has a job or not. And then the child support, wanting to pay the child support, is going to drop off.
In answer to a question about the motivations of fathers who were not married, and try to avoid establishing legal paternity and paying child support, Jeffrey B. explained his assumptions about such behavior:
Most of them are probably young guys that really didn't want a family to start with and just were out there for the fun of it and got caught. That's about what it amounts to, and probably they aren't ready for the responsibilities of a family.
Keith M. and David D. had different explanations. They assumed that fathers who were not paying any child support were not able to see their kids, or the mother was interfering with the relationships between the father and the children. Keith M.:
Most of the guys I've seen are real straightforward. They say: "Look, I want to see my kids. I want to be part of their life." They can't go to their school activities, see them, help them with their homework The ones who are not paying, the ones who are having a very difficult time, the ones on the street, they aren't gonna come to any support meetings, they aren't gonna come to you [Parents' Fair Share], they're gonna be lost forever unless someone picks them up.
Jeffrey B.: I would dare say most of those fathers that you're talking about, they're probably either fathers who really never cared about the kid in the first place and maybe just try to avoid child support because it isn't part of what they figure they should owe the ex-wife's got the kids, why should I pay? or they're ones that just totally give up and walk away from it all.
David D.: Those that don't pay, there's probably a very large percentage that just as soon pay, so why not concentrate on those and forget the one that don't. There's always some I mean you could take somebody that has nothing and give them a million dollars and tomorrow they'll still have nothing. Maybe that's the kinda guys people should be going after If there's in Michigan 10,000 divorced fathers that are not paying support, I guarantee you there's probably 4,000 that just as soon pay it and have a job and that's the ones they can't get work, or they can't get work and live on what they're making or something like that there's probably more guys out there that would like to work and pay support that you can find job for.
The members of the fathers' rights group feel that an injustice is done to them when their parental role is not recognized, accepted, and appreciated. The noncustodial fathers who were interviewed feel that they are more than adequate parents; they not only can be "nurturing" (a word that recurred in the discussion), but they also make a unique, irreplaceable contribution to their children's development:
Jeffrey B.: A father's got different input in their kids' life than a mother does that's where they get their strength and their courage and everything else It's proven more and more in all the statistics I see that kids raised without a father are gonna have problems in later years. Girls they usually find the love that they missed with their father in relationships that usually end of nowhere because they're looking for the wrong thing in that relationship. They need both parents, and to have them actively involved with both parents, even though you're divorced, will still give them a well-rounded relationship so that they can deal with normal life when they get out and have their own family.
David D.: When my daughter was born and as she was getting older and older, one thing I was always looking forward to I was always looking forward to her first date. Answering the door when some little snot-nosed kid come to pick her up I missed it I missed it.
Keith M.: One thing I've always looked forward to my daughter's my only child is her first day of school. I have never seen her go to school, I've never been involved in her school activities even from preschool.
Jeffrey B.: But the court system's got to weed out instead of just lumping everybody into categories each case is specific. You talk about going to school, my ex-wife knew that I was coming to see my son go to his first day of school, she went a half hour early so I couldn't get a picture of him. That's the kind of crap that goes on all the time. Those are the kind of things that make you angry, you know.
Miller M.: It's very suffering for the children, not just us. We have coping, and we have friends and we can deal with it, but the children have not such a method to deal with it, they're totally helpless.
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HHS Fatherhood Initiative
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Last updated: 03/26/01