Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Cassandra J. Eastham
We pay before we pump the gas, we work before we receive the paycheck, and we must pass the exam before we get the grade. It's legal and it's fair. It's unfortunate that people are not required to raise a child before they are awarded an orgasm. A moment of romance results in a life-long responsibility. Some planned on it, and some tried to do the "right thing," but when the romance ends, when the marriage is over, when the reality of responsibility becomes unbearable, it is too easy to leave those responsibilities, those children, to somebody else.
I suffered from serial monogamous relationships for ten years, and, as a result, I have two very different child support cases that I struggle with every day. The primary reason I kicked these men out of my home was that it was easier to raise and support my children without them. Each had decided he could not handle the stress of supporting a household, so he just stopped. I spent years trying to talk to, convince, coerce, assist, con, plea, support, get on my knees and beg each man to stop neglecting the child, to get a job, and to stop spending money on computer games and pornography. There was nothing I could do to get their help while they were still in my home, and I was naïve enough to think the laws would help me retrieve financial assistance from both fathers once they were gone.
My sons and I have dipped under the poverty line more than once. We have frequently gone without daycare, dental work, clothing, food and a place to live. It turns out that my situation is not unique. "Child support payments, which are intended to provide economic resources and security to youngsters, are often made irregularly, partially, or in many instances not at all" (Kalter 10). Why? "Married couples brought in $28,168 a year more than single mothers. Even single women managed to collect $7,494 a year more than single mothers" (Watnik 339). Why? "Despite efforts to increase awards, the average amount received is less than half of what it costs to actually raise a child" (Watnik 333). Why? "Seventy-five percent of women on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, also known as welfare) [are receiving] public services because the absent parent of their children is unable or refuses to pay child support" (Spence 153). Why? Is it the laws or is it the fathers?
The laws, at least in California, seem to be in place. The California Family Code Section 4053 states that,
In implementing the statewide uniform [child support] guideline, the courts shall adhere to the following principles:
(a) A parent's first and principal obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent's circumstances and station in life.
(b) Both parents are mutually responsible for the support of their children.
(c) The guideline takes into account each parent's actual income and level of responsibility for the children.
(d) Each parent should pay for the support of the children according to his or her ability.
(e) The guideline seeks to place the interests of children as the state's top priority.
The process to collect child support also seems to be very simple. One must first locate the other parent, establish paternity if the other parent is male, establish a support order and then have that support order enforced.
Locating the other parent can be difficult if the custodial parent has no legal data on him such as social security number, driver's license number or place of birth, but locating the other parent can be simple if the custodial parent is still in touch with him. Still, in order to enforce the support, the government needs to know more than simply where the parent is. It is customary to fill out more detailed information on a case file, such as the parent's place of business, the license plate and model of the car he drives, any assets or real estate the parent owns, names and locations of the grandparents and so forth. The more information collected at this point, the smoother the process will be.
Next, legal paternity must be established if the non-custodial parent is the father. If the father is present at the child's birth, hospitals establish paternity while issuing the birth certificate. If the parents are married, it is assumed the husband is the father unless legally contested and proven otherwise.
Once the other parent is located and is legally recognized as the child's parent, a child support order must be awarded. If the child is a product of the marriage, child support orders are often established at the time of the divorce. Historically, the amount was determined by an agreement between the parents before the divorce was filed in court through a Marriage Settlement Agreement. Forcing two people who are already at odds with each other to cooperatively discuss money matters is like pouring gasoline onto a fire. Luckily, the laws in California have changed, and the amount of child support is now calculated by the courts. The three key factors in deciding the amount are income of both parents, percent of visitation of both parents, and price of childcare.
The last step, enforcing the support, is not something the custodial parents can do themselves. They must rely on the District Attorney's Family Support Division to enforce a support order for them; however, the real responsibility of expediting a court order lies on the shoulders of the custodial parent (Watnik 310). Raising a child is not easy with two parents involved; but raising a child alone requires a superhero effort. That single parent now has to be the mom and the dad, the disciplinarian and the nurturer, the teacher and the playmate, the taxi driver, the housekeeper, the cook, and the breadwinner. Society does not generally call single parents superheroes because it plainly cannot be done. On top of all that, these single parents are forced to tack on the duties of legal secretaries in order to get the help they desperately need.
However grave the problem may be now, the history of child support has not been without its occasional legal adjustment. The federal and state governments have gone through great pains to support the needs of single parent families. "Despite custody orders, collection of child support long relied heavily on voluntary cooperation and was rarely enforced. . . . It took many years of seeing women and children intolerably impoverished before people realized that a system of child support would not work without serious enforcement measures" (Wallerstein 251). The AFDC was established during the Great Depression to help single parents who were not receiving support. A Head of Household status has been added for filing taxes. In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility Act for tracking down and enforcing payment from fathers (Mink 69).
Orders can be enforced by wage withholding, wage garnishment, writ of garnishment for personal property, a creditor's bill if assets have been signed away to a third party, and even a till tap in which authorities can empty the cash register of a business the parent owns. Orders can also be enforced through a diversion of government benefits: child support can be deducted from unemployment compensation, worker's compensation, pension, retirement fund, trust, social security, disability and tax refund. Up to 55% of the obligor's wages can be withheld in all states (Watnik 311). A non-custodial parent failing to produce a good reason for failing to pay past due child support is now charged with civil contempt of court. "Criminal prosecution for non support means the paying parent is accused of criminally neglecting the child by failing to pay support" (Watnik 313). Delinquency of over $1000 is, by law, reported to the Credit Bureau, and a bankruptcy does not absolve the non-custodial parent of past due amounts. Driver's licenses, business licenses and even fishing licenses can be revoked. "The judge can order extra child support payments to make up the difference, require that a bond be posted, or even send the parent to jail until back payments are made" (Watnik 313). Furthermore, there is no statute of limitations for back-owed child support. Whatever monies were not paid to the child before the child turned 18 will continue to be owed to the child after age 18, after the child is adopted, married, and to the next of kin when the child dies.
In short, authorities have tried to write child support laws to carry the same weight of responsibility as actually raising children: you cannot get rid of them, it is very bad if you fail, and the duty does not expire. Why, then, "when the Census Bureau surveyed child support collections, they found that only 51% of the parents received full payments, 24% received partial payments, and 25% received no payments at all" (Watnik 303)? Why don't parents want to support their children? There are a lot of miserable excuses, but the top 5 reasons why parents don't pay child support fall into the following categories. The non-custodial parent:
--wants to "get even" because visitation is frustrated or denied
--believes that the other parent should be the sole supporter of the children
--wants the other parent to get a job
--is convinced the children don't need the money
--doesn't like to be ordered to do anything (Watnik 313)
Despite the laws, fathers have sidestepped child support because the sense of responsibility is just not there. Perhaps the laws should be even tougher. Welfare mothers are sometimes given court ordered birth control. Why is it that fathers who deliberately fail to pay support for their children are not?
Every time I balance my checkbook, I thank the powers that be that I miscarried the pregnancy in the marriage that occurred between leaving Frank and meeting Jim. It is as bitterly ironic as it sounds.
Looking back, I can only say that, if I had known they would fail in their responsibilities, I would not have tangoed with them in the first place. I have already cut a lot of fat from my financial worries. No one is spending my paycheck behind my back. No one is beating or neglecting the boys while I am at work. There are no mysterious purchases showing up at my door and no 1-976-HOT-SEXX numbers showing up on my phone bill. I feel a great deal of security just knowing that my children are actually receiving every resource I can provide.
I am very and most permanently single. From this position, it is easy to want to hate all men, but I cannot, for I am raising two boys to become men. It is easy to want to blame laws, society, bureaucracy or the fathers themselves for the lack of support, but trying to force people to accept the virtue of responsibility would take far more than laws and consequences. It would take a bunch of big miracles. I will continue to wiggle my way through the red tape, and the fathers may pay up eventually, but I can no longer hold my breath.
Fighting to squeeze blood from an unyielding stone requires a lot more energy, time, money, and patience than any single parent has to offer. Instead of spending these precious resources on making my exes pay, I feel they are better spent on raising the children my exes forgot.
Perhaps that is why.
Calfornia Family Code Section 4053, www.findlaw.com.
Edelman, Marian Wright and Robert M. Solow. Wasting America's Future The Children's Defense Fund Report on the Costs of Child Poverty. Beacon Press, Boston MA 1994.
Mink, Gwendolyn. Welfare's End. Cornell University Press, Ithica, NY 1998.
Kalter, Neil. Growing up with Divorce. The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Inc. New York, NY 2000.
Spence, Simone. Deadbeats- What responsible parents need to know about collecting child support. Sourcebooks Inc, Naperville IL 2000.
Wallerstein, Judith S., Julia M Lewis and Sandra Blakesule. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce- The 25 Year Landmark Study. Hyperion New York, NY 2000.
Watnik, Webster. Child Custody Made Simple. Single Parent Press, Claremont CA 2001.