Hanging Single Mothers Out To Dry

Monday, December 26th, 2016 @ 12:00PM

It was 4 AM. Things had finally slowed down a little in the ER. I was sitting at my desk writing up a chart on the last patient. Just then I heard a nurse at the nurse’s station behind me talking to a respiratory technician about her niece. It was a common story.

Apparently, the niece was a young, single mother trying to raise a child on her own. After a short, tumultuous marriage, she and her husband had divorced. The judge presiding in the case had ordered the young man to pay a reasonable sum in child-support to his ex-wife on a weekly basis – a common arrangement in such cases.

The problem, of course, as in so many similar circumstances, is that the young man refused to pay. Each week the amount he owed increased. The young woman worked a full-time job but a significant portion of her income went toward daycare expenses. With only a high school education, her employment opportunities were limited as was her overall earning potential.

She had appealed to the court system for help and the case was referred to the Child Support Recovery Unit of the local Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) office. A DFACS representative contacted the young man and explained that if he did not begin making the court-ordered payments right away, he would be arrested, charged with failure to pay child-support, and sent to the county jail.

The young man complied, but with a twist. He only paid a portion of the payments. In fact, it was a tiny portion. The young woman contacted DFACS and complained. She was then told that as long as the young man was paying a portion of his bill, any portion, DFACS could not intervene further. And, therein lies the problem.

What the young man was succeeding in doing, in effect, was to make a mockery of the court system and state law. He was taking advantage of a loop-hole in the law which allowed him to avoid legal or punitive action as long as he paid some portion of his weekly child-support. According to the nurse telling the story, the young man often paid less than $20 a week – a paltry sum to a young woman trying to raise a child alone.

What is curious about this case, and so many others like it, is that the state legislature has created laws to force so-called “dead-beat dads” to pay their child-support but then left a significant and obvious loop-hole through which these same dead-beats can avoid their responsibilities. And the local DFACS office is essentially powerless to help.

It appears that the attitude held by some is that these young women get themselves into this problem and therefore should have to face the consequences. However, this is a very short-sighted view of the situation. Certainly, at least in most cases, it would be better for these young women to defer having children to a time when they are better positioned to provide for them in the event of divorce – a time such as after having completed more education or risen to a higher level of income within their chosen profession. Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, “It takes two to tango,” and regardless of the success or failure of the marriage, the father has a responsibility, financial and otherwise, to help raise the child.

In recent years, much has been done to reign in these dead-beat dads and force them to live up to their responsibilities. However, more needs to be done. The loop-hole allowing these men to avoid meeting the full level of court-mandated child-support payments must be closed. For the sake of the child, who is powerless to intervene on his or her own behalf, something more must be done.

Dead-beat fathers offer numerous justifications for not paying their child-support such as that the mother is actually spending the money on herself rather than on the child. Whether such claims are true or not is beside the point – court mandates must be enforced in order to send the message that the state will not tolerate having a mockery made of its laws. However, interestingly, at least in these particular cases, the state itself is part of the problem. Local DFACS representatives and law enforcement officials are more than willing to do their part in solving the dead-beat dad issue but, in order to succeed, they must have the law on their side. It’s time for the state to correct this defect in the law. Failing to do so means that single mother will continue to be left hanging out to dry.

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