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Metro Pulse Deadbeat Nation

Despite Tennessee's best efforts, more than 500,000 parents still aren't paying their child support.

By Katie Allison Granju

MARCH 30, 1998:  Frank Jones (a pseudonym) doesn't think of himself as a deadbeat dad. Jones, a 39-year-old car salesman, is the divorced father of two sons, ages 13 and 9. This soft-spoken churchgoing man describes himself as " a good father." He says that he loves his sons, lives for their well-being, and "would do anything for them." According to the state of Tennessee's Office of Child Support Enforcement, however, one thing Jones doesn't appear willing to do for his two boys is pay child support. This Knoxville dad is now approximately $7,000 in arrears for unpaid child support, and his ex-wife has turned to state authorities to see that he meets his obligation under the law to provide financial support for the care of his minor children.

With two in every five American children currently living in single-parent homes, the collection and distribution of child support payments has taken on monumental importance in our national life. And as a result, deadbeat parents such as Jones have become arguably the most universally reviled characters in American culture today. After years of awareness-raising campaigns, everyone from talk-show hosts to politicians to the man on the street now seems to agree that noncustodial parents who fail to pay their child support should be considered personae non grata. These parents, usually fathers, can expect to see their larger-than-life pictures plastered up on "Wanted" placards everywhere from the sides of buses to pages in the National Enquirer. Additionally, our local, state, and federal governments pursue them with a variety of harshly punitive measures designed to ensure that they pay up. Vicky Williams, vice president of Policy Studies, Inc, a leading Denver, Colorado-based agency providing consulting and management services in child support enforcement for a number of state governments including Tennessee's, says that she has been working in this field for 20 years and that this attitude of intolerance represents a sea change in the way Americans think about parents who fail to pay child support.

"I have seen a real shift in our culture since 1978," says Williams. "Back then, men would actually brag about not paying their child support. This used to be OK. Now it is completely and utterly unacceptable."

Doug Toppenberg, a well-known Knoxville family law attorney, agrees and says he has also seen improvements locally. "In my 11 years of practice, I have seen a real change in the climate. People are now expected by everyone to pay their child support on time and for the amount owed," he says. "The system for awarding and collecting child support has also become much more efficient."

Yet, Jones still doesn't pay his child support. He has been hauled into court, threatened with license revocation, and still doesn't pay. Currently, he says that he is facing wage garnishment.

"There are two basic reasons I have gotten behind," explains Jones without a hint of apology. "The first is that I just don't have the money. I am remarried and my wife stays home with our 2-year-old twins, and I just can't afford what they say I can afford. The second reason is that I do not believe that my ex-wife would spend one penny of what I gave her on my sons. She would do what she did in the past when I used to keep up better. She would spend my money on herself."

And Jones is not alone in his resolve not to support his kids. Despite the public perception that we have "gotten tough" on deadbeat parents and the widespread belief that increasing numbers of noncustodial parents are meeting their obligations, many child support experts posit that the rate of payment compliance among all noncustodial parents has remained essentially the same for the past two decades. In real numbers, Jones is one of the estimated 10 million noncustodial parents nationwide who are still failing to pay child support. This group includes more than 500,000 cases within the state of Tennessee. Nationally, researchers estimate that more than $27 billion in judicially mandated child support continues to go uncollected each year. Despite our best efforts, including massive amounts of public funding and manpower, this seemingly intractable problem doesn't appear to be getting any better. In fact, it may be getting worse.

Knoxville: More Than 2,000 Open Files Per Caseworker

Knoxville is no exception. The Knox County Child Support Office, located at Juvenile Court on Division Street, currently has approximately 30,000 open child support cases. With an annual budget approaching $1 million, Knoxville's office is part of Tennessee's Department of Human Services Division of Child Support Enforcement, which operates similar agencies in cities and towns across the state. Every state is required by a 1975 Congressional mandate and subsequent legislation to pursue unpaid child support through such a system. Today, according to child-support researcher David Blankenhorn, author of the book Fatherless America, this state-federal partnership has grown into a $2 billion national bureaucracy, employing about 230 federal officials and some 38,000 state employees across the country.

But here in Knoxville, child support enforcement administrator Jackie Kitts' staff consists of only three attorneys and 11 caseworkers. That's right: 14 people handling 30,000 cases with an average of 1,400 new files opened each month. Only half of these cases have court orders entered for payment—a necessary first step toward collecting child support—and of these, only approximately 30 percent are paying what they owe. According to Kitts, this glut of casework stems from the fact that any custodial parent who is owed child support, past or present, can utilize the services of this public agency at no charge. In addition to enforcement of court orders for unpaid child support, local officials also help with obtaining needed court orders, establishing paternity, and tracking down absentee parents. And more and more local parents are requiring these types of assistance in collecting the child support owed to their kids.

"At times we are overwhelmed," admits Kitts, who has worked at Juvenile Court for the past three decades. "We are certainly understaffed, but so are other child support offices."

Bob Williams, president of Policy Studies, Inc., validates Kitts' observations.

"In Tennessee, you have approximately 867 child support cases per employee," notes Williams. "This is twice the national average."

Tennessee's New Get-Tough Approach

The vast majority of the cases coming through the Knoxville office are referrals submitted by the state's public assistance program, Families First. This is because establishment or resumption of regular child support payments to welfare mothers is a top priority of Tennessee's new welfare program, as required by federal law. The goal is to see the government reimbursed for funds it pays out to support the children of low-income, single-parent households; money taxpayers might not have had to spend in the first place if noncustodial parents were supporting their own minor children.

According to Joyce McClaren, Tennessee's director of child support services, for many single parents, child support awards, paid on time and for the amount due, can spell the critical difference between financial independence and reliance upon public assistance.

"So many former Families First clients are going into the job force at minimum wage jobs that they really need that extra income," explains McClaren.

That is a primary reason Tennessee, like many states around the country, has recently begun pursuing deadbeat parents with a new level of determined vengeance. State expenditures on child support enforcement have increased from $28 million in fiscal 1993 to more than $48 million in 1997. As a part of this effort, the state's Department of Human Services is currently in the final stages of automating every child support office in the state for the first time via the new TCSES (Tennessee Child Support Enforcement System) computer network. This will allow caseworkers to more easily track and target delinquent parents.

According to state officials, TCSES will also facilitate the use of powerful new enforcement tools aimed at deadbeat parents, such as credit bureau reporting, driver's license revocation, and wage garnishment. The state's federally mandated "New Hires" program, initiated in 1997, will require employers to check the status of recently-acquired employees' outstanding child support obligations and then report their new hires to the state for collection purposes within 20 days.

DHS claims that state coffers are already seeing dramatic results from several of these programs, including $13 million collected in 1997 through the threat of yanking nonpaying parents' licenses and $18 million in back child support payments via cooperation with the IRS Tax Intercept Program. The total dollar amount in state collections has more than doubled since the beginning of this decade.

Yet, even with these novel collection approaches, or perhaps due to the high cost of their implementation, DHS's own Child Support Fact Sheet indicates that Tennessee actually collected less in child support per dollar of state expenditure in fiscal year 1997 than it has in any of the preceding four years during which this indicator has steadily trended negatively. In addition, the overall number of Tennessee parents failing to pay support continues to mount. And McClaren emphasizes that as astonishing as a half a million cases of unpaid child support in Tennessee may sound, the state system's own numbers do not accurately reflect the sum total of this problem.

"We have no way of knowing just how many people in Tennessee are actually owed unpaid support," explains McClaren. "We can only count the 500,000 cases that are in our own system."

Many thousands of custodial parents who are able to afford a private attorney to press absent parents for unpaid support never utilize public resources and thus remain uncounted. A growing number of parents who are owed are turning to private collection agencies specializing in child support enforcement. And then there are the estimated tens of thousands of Tennessee parents who are owed support who, for one reason or another, never try to collect.

Toppenberg has encountered this phenomenon in his practice.

"I see women who say that the father was supposed to pay but never did. They decide that they just want to be done with that person and have them out of their lives, so they may not try to collect," he says.

Unwed Parents Overload the System

Cecilia, a 43-year-old accountant and the mother of a 19-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, each with a different father, is among these uncounted cases. She has never asked her son's father for one penny of child support. And, although her son's father, to whom she was never married, has regular contact with his child, he has also never offered to pay. Cecilia attributes her laissez-faire attitude about collecting support for her son to the years of "jumping through hoops" she endured trying to collect what now amounts to $45,000 in back child support from her daughter's father, from whom she was divorced in 1983.

"I'm sure my decision [not to pursue child support] was influenced heavily by the way things have gone with Jessica's dad," says Cecilia wearily. "I guess I thought, 'Hell, I'm not going to get any support from him anyway.' I told him that I had no preconceived notions of his financial responsibility towards his son but that he should do what felt right to him...whatever he could live with. Apparently he can live with the fact that he has contributed nothing financially to his son's life because that's what he has done."

According to Bob Williams, Cecilia's son's father is not unusual: Fathers who have never been married to their children's mothers are significantly less likely to take financial responsibility for their offspring. Census Bureau statistics indicate that only 15 percent of never-married custodial mothers, the demographic group with the highest poverty rate in the United States, will ever see any child support.

"The stereotype of the parent who is not paying support has been of the middle-class, divorced male," says Williams. "This description certainly fits some cases, but probably not the majority. For example, approximately half of the open unpaid child support cases involve unwed parents."

Tanya, a 23-year-old UT student and the unwed single mother of a 3-year-old daughter, has pursued child support from the father of her daughter and was ultimately successful in obtaining a child support award for a whopping $100 per month. She claims that her daughter's father, a restaurant employee who has never asked to see his daughter, fought her tooth and nail before ultimately agreeing to help support his child.

"Looking back, getting him to pay was just so humiliating. He tried to say that he wasn't her father, like I had been with all these other men. We had to get a blood test. He knew he was her father. She looks just like him," says Tanya. "I have to say that, as happy as I am to have my daughter in my life, I can't recommend single parenthood to any woman. The child support thing is just so hard."

Researchers agree that the dramatic rise in the number of children born to unwed mothers is fueling much of the nonpayment of child support throughout Tennessee and the United States. While there continues to be an overall increase in absentee-father families across the nation, the proportion of those families represented by incidence of divorce or death of a parent has actually declined. The percentage of never-married parents in this group, however, has skyrocketed. According to the Census Bureau, unwed parenthood accounted for 19 percent of all fatherless homes in 1979 but had grown to 30 percent by 1990, making it the fastest-growing family-structure trend in the country. Bob Williams reports that Tennessee's out-of-wedlock birthrate stood at a staggering 36 percent of all births in 1996.

When an unmarried custodial parent, usually the mother, applies for Families First assistance, she is required to name the father of her child or children as a condition of the program so that paternity can be established for purposes of child support collection. Sometimes, never-married mothers who have not applied for aid also utilize public child support enforcement mechanisms in an attempt to collect from unwilling or absent fathers. In either case, the steps taken by the Office of Child Support Enforcement in an attempt to extract payment are the same.

"First the mother must identify the person she believes to be the father. In many cases, she may name more than one individual as the possible father," explains Kitts. "We must then track down any and all of these men and then get a court date to establish paternity—99 percent of the time, the man being named as the father demands a blood test. If she has named three people, we have to go through this with all three."

Even when paternity is successfully established and a court order for child support is made, Kitts and McClaren concur with the statistical data: noncustodial fathers who have never been married to their child's mother are much less likely to pay child support.

James, a 22-year-old Knoxville man, fits this profile. He has fathered two children by two different mothers, neither of whom have been married to him. He doesn't pay regular child support for either one, although he often brings gifts of disposable diapers and cash to the mother of his youngest child, 16-month-old Frederick.

"I guess I am supposed to be paying child support for my older girl, but her mother won't let me see her and I can't afford $50 a week anyway," says James, a high school graduate who works seasonally in construction. "I get letters and stuff from the state, but if I haven't got the money, what am I supposed to do? If I give her $200 a month, I can't put gas in my car. She's okay anyway because she gets welfare."

Can't Pay...Or Won't?

To some fathers' rights advocates, cases like James' serve as an illustration of issues remaining unaddressed within the current child support system. These activists claim that the vast majority of unpaid child support can be traced to two root causes: lack of regular contact between children and their noncustodial parents and legitimate financial hardship that impedes ability to pay.

Scott Roy of East Knoxville is the divorced father of two children and the president of Dads Against Discrimination, a statewide organization promoting fairness in divorce, parenting, and child support issues. He says the cultural vilification of fathers who don't pay child support can be traced to media reports using "Willie Horton tactics."

"The poster child for fathers who don't pay was that rich guy from New York who refused to support his children," Roy says passionately. "However, most fathers who don't pay are either low-income or denied adequate visitation."

However, according to Bob Williams, it has never been proven definitively that lack of visitation is a causative factor in failure to pay child support.

"There is likely some link here, but in our view, this is not a primary reason [for nonpayment]," opines Williams. "This factor is overblown."

Where Williams, Roy, and every other expert on child support issues can agree is that low-income noncustodial parents of all stripes are the least likely to pay their child support. Some studies indicate that fewer than 20 percent of low-income fathers who are required to pay child support actually do so.

Take, for example, James' case, cited above. As a marginally employed individual, James makes an average of $17,000 annually, all paid "under the table" in cash. Tennessee child support guidelines, which are based on a flat percentage of the noncustodial parent's income, call for him to pay out 32 percent of his income in child support to his two children.

"Many low-income and underemployed men simply do not have the wherewithal to support two households," says Roy. "You cannot easily support two households on the average income in Tennessee. Guys earning between $15,000 and $30,000 annually often can't do this. If you take a guy earning $18,000 and ask him to pay out 32 percent of his income, this may mean the difference between food or no food for him."

To complicate matters, many noncustodial parents establish second families, thus cutting the income pie into even more slices.

Studies have suggested that one very effective use of public child support collection funds is the establishment of training and education programs for low-income noncustodial parents so they are better able to meet their financial obligations to their children. McClaren says there are currently two local programs in Tennessee, one in Memphis and one in Nashville, which take this approach, and the state is observing their success with interest.

Vicky Williams says education and job-training programs for noncustodial parents can also "smoke out" those parents who claim to be unemployed but who are really just refusing to pay. McClaren says that, in her experience with Tennessee families, many low-income fathers who claim an inability to pay child support could pay "if they would just go out and get a full-time job"

Although the majority of noncustodial parents who are delinquent in child support do fall in the low-income category, many others, such as the previously noted Jones, make a modest to high income and still fall behind. Kitts says she frequently sees cases in which middle-income fathers willfully evade their financial responsibilities to their children, often due to a perception that they are actually supporting the lifestyle of their ex-wife at their own expense.

"We recently had a case of a computer analyst at Martin Marietta. He quit his $70,000 a year job and took a $25,000 a year job so that he wouldn't have to pay as much in child support. This wasn't very bright, if you think about it, since he still has to pay the same flat percentage of his income, regardless of what his income may be," says Kitts. "We have also had a case where a local father owed about $100,000 in back child support."

Toppenberg says he has represented middle-class fathers who haven't been paying their child support.

"These men commonly complain 'all she wants is my money.' He may see her with a new car or trailer and suddenly this money he is sending her doesn't look like child support to him anymore," notes Toppenberg.

Unfair Guidelines?

A growing number of noncustodial parents claim that Tennessee's "unfair" child support guidelines actually discourage payment of child support. Tennessee is one of only 14 states which still uses a flat percentage of a noncustodial parent's income as the method for determining child support. Most other states have adopted some form of what is known as the "income shares model" in which both parents' income, plus the number of days per year the child spends in each parent's household, are taken into account in determining support awards.

Although he has never once failed to pay his own court-ordered child support on time and in full, Knoxvillian Wayne Casteel is one noncustodial father who feels Tennessee's method for calculating support is unfair and punitive to divorced fathers. Casteel, Security Manager for the Mountainview Youth Development Center, is the divorced father of two minor children, ages 11 and 10. He, along with his attorney, Toppenberg, recently appealed his own child support situation all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In Casteel's case, his ex-wife, a nurse, earns more money than he does. Additionally, his children spend approximately one-third of their time as members of his household. Yet, he was still required to pay the full, state-mandated 32 percent of his income in child support to his ex-wife each month. She pays him nothing for the time he cares for the children. Thus, in 1994 he asked Knoxville child support referee Wayne Houser to devise an income-shares type formula to amend his award to more accurately reflect his personal family situation. Houser did so, his ex-wife appealed, and thus began an expensive four-year legal odyssey which recently ended with the state Supreme Court refusing to hear Casteel's appeal, effectively ordering him to continue paying under the existing flat-percentage guidelines. Toppenberg was disappointed in the outcome. "I think that both parents' income should be factored into the child support award amount," he says. "These guidelines were set in a different era. I think that public pressure will have to change them, and this will have to happen at the legislative level unless the Supreme Court is bombarded by similar cases."

However, McClaren disagrees that the flat-percentage model is "unfair." She says the complicated process by which the state came up with the flat-percentage guidelines does consider both parents' incomes.

"I don't feel like a change to the income-shares-type child-support guidelines in Tennessee would change compliance levels," she says. "If someone fully understands how flat percentage works, they know that we did consider both parents' incomes. Some people just don't want to understand this."

Yet another complaint voiced by many of Tennessee's noncustodial parents who are paying their child support is the 5 percent monthly "processing fee" charged by court clerks' offices to collect and distribute child support statewide. Tennessee parents paying child support are required, unless ordered otherwise, to send their payments to the clerk of the court in which their support order was entered. For a parent making a large payment each month, this processing fee can add up to a substantial amount over the course of a year. Bob Williams finds the way Tennessee charges for this service "unusual."

"This 5 percent fee is quite high compared to other states. Michigan, to take one example, charges $25 per month, period, whereas in Tennessee, if someone owed $20,000 in arrearage, he might end up owing the court clerk $1,000," says Williams. "This certainly might discourage payment and bears some scrutiny, I think."

(A bill under consideration in the state Legislature would change this, bringing in a centralized contractor to collect and distribute child support payments.)

McClaren says that, although her office makes every effort to be sensitive to the individual situations and concerns of parents who feel they cannot or should not have to pay the support they have been ordered to pay, the bottom line is that Tennessee's children are the losers when child support is not collected.

"We know that there is still a significant problem with child support in Tennessee or else 500,000 people, mostly women, wouldn't have come to us for help."

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