Shaming Child Support Obligors Into Paying; Jailing The Deadbeats

By all accounts, the program of Irv Maze, Jefferson County Attorney in threatening to publicize the names of child support obligors who are six months delinquent is very successful. A long list appeared in a supplement to today's Courier Journal. 20% of the deadbeats are women, so let's lay to rest the phrase "dead beat dads." The flyer impressively listed other consequences of nonpayment including suspension of driver, professional, sporting and concealed deadly weapon licenses, impounding tax refunds and passports and imposing liens on boats, cars and houses.
By coincidence, Mary T. Wagner, assistant district attorney in Sheboygan County, WI wrote in the a couple of weeks ago:

My standard speech is always the same. I can't make a guy be a good father. I can't make him walk the floor with a sick child, drive to soccer games, run to Walgreen's at midnight to pick up a prescription, help with homework, go to a Boy Scout potluck dinner or even smile. What I can do is squeeze him hard enough that money comes out. Or ask a judge to send him to prison.

There's never time for oratorical polish. I'm usually giving this speech rapid-fire to a dazed and confused custodial parent about five minutes before I walk into another preliminary hearing in Wisconsin state court, where I work, where I'll hold a deadbeat dad's feet to the fire for failing to support his kids. I'm always reminded of the limits of what I can do as a state prosecutor targeting those who choose to float away and let somebody else pick up the tab. I'm also reminded that when a father skips out on his family, it has lifelong repercussions for a lot of lives.

Once I've opened a felony nonsupport case, it's just a matter of time before the guy somehow trips the radar somewhere -- a speeding ticket, a bar fight, a domestic disturbance -- and makes the return trip to Wisconsin on a prison bus. One got snared when, after 20 years of otherwise perfectly respectable and law-abiding life in another state, he walked into a police station to report a missing wallet. Oops.

Under Wisconsin's system, if you've gone four months in a row without sending home any child support, your options change from cooling your heels in the local jail on a civil commitment to prison, where you can't buy your way out by finally paying what you owe. That's where I come in, with a full arsenal of police powers, criminal charges, arrest warrants, extraditions and, ultimately, a compelling speech at the sentencing hearing.

The case is never about whether the deadbeat dad failed to make any payments for 120 consecutive days, earning himself up to a year and a half of "maximum confinement" in prison and two additional years of "extended supervision" reporting to a probation agent. It's about how the parent who stayed with the children had to work two jobs, never caught a break and sometimes had to take government assistance, and how the kids in the middle of it all felt abandoned -- how their world fell apart when Dad left.

Sometimes it's about a 10-year-old child coming to court with Mom, smiling but nervous with anticipation, wondering if the father who's been gone for years will recognize her in the gallery as he sits on a bench up front, wearing an orange jumpsuit and chains, waiting for our dance to begin. Those scenes never end well.

And the costs echo through the years. It's alarming, even spine-chilling, how often I can pick up the file in a nonsupport case that I've charged, walk over to the other side of the office, look up the last name and find the children snared in juvenile court.

Statistics on the Web site of the federal Administration for Children and Families show that the federal and state partnership governing child support enforcement carried a caseload of 15.9 million families in fiscal 2005. Those numbers reflect the mandatory inclusion of parents who have custody and receive some kind of government benefits, and other custodial parents who voluntarily seek state help in getting their child-support orders enforced.

During that fiscal year, more than 11 million of those cases were listed as having some kind of child support arrears due -- and only a little more than half of those were listed as having payments coming in toward the arrears in child support. That's a lot of money not sent or spent on shoes, school supplies, haircuts or summer camp.

I hope that all of you who think about skipping out on your child-support obligations, to cut your losses or simplify your lives, keep in mind that I, or someone else working in a generic government office, will eventually haul you back to face the music. But if you think at all about what really matters, that should be the least of your worries.

The more remedies, the better. And, remember, it isn't just dads who are not paying court ordered child support.