Child-Support Collection Cutbacks Are Shameful

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Cindy Elmore

(WOMENSENEWS)–Think.

Think back to that Jan. 3, 2001, shopping trip to Wal-Mart. What could that $1.58 item on the faded receipt that says "WM P TWL 3PK" be? Was it a set of socks for my daughter? A three-pack of chewing gum for me? A set of sponges?

I’ve made thousands such deliberations–guesses, really–in the last few months as I try to submit a bill for the four unpaid years of child support due to me by the father of my 6-year-old. I know I’m not alone in tabulating the costs for my child because $95 billion is owed to custodial parents like me nationwide.

Things are getting worse for parents such as me–85 percent of whom are women–who already have borne a lonely burden of raising children without the financial help of a second parent.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote soon on a budget that slashes federal funding for child support enforcement by 40 percent over the next five years. Custodial parents will go without an additional $24 billion over the next 10 years, according to preliminary estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

This is a real blow to a system that is already a pushover for deadbeat parents.

In my state, for instance, in-state service processors are used only for in-state parents. Yet, nationwide, 30 percent of all child support cases involve interstate parents. And most interstate cases are easy for the nonpaying parent to evade.

The county I filed with notifies nonpaying parents of legal action against them by putting a letter clearly marked from the child-support enforcement office into the U.S. Postal Service. The nonpayer can stall proceedings by simply not signing the letter’s return-receipt card.

New Bankruptcy Law Hurts

Custodial parents are also hurt by the new federal bankruptcy law enacted Oct. 17. In the past, our claims were in a special category that had to be paid; they could not be written off. But the new law makes it easier for credit card claims to join our ranks. We do not welcome them. As we seek money for shoes and medical care we will now be competing with the Disney Visa Card for the same assets. Who do you think will win?

I, for one, have already lost much in the system of child support enforcement. That is why I have been tabulating receipts. Some are tiny amounts; others are much more. Some are on receipts now so faded that they can’t be read anymore. Not that I saved all such receipts by any means. After all, I was a single mother going to graduate school full time and working.

Sometimes it was all I could do to find the time to get to a store in the first place to buy the diapers and wipes, food and shoes my child grew out of too quickly. Then I had to remember to save the receipt for it for the next four years.

For most of that period, I have been trying to wade through the child-support enforcement system in North Carolina. For me, that process took nearly three years, despite the intervention of the state legislators I recruited, the letter to county commissioners, the conversation with a sympathetic attorney.

I finally got a court order establishing support in May 2004 and my ex-husband’s wages were first garnished five months later. That leaves a four-plus-year period when I was the sole supporter of our child. These expenses–between my marital breakup and the long-delayed date of court-ordered child support–are known as arrears. They are what I am now struggling to add up.

Arrears Must Be Proven

Caseworkers in two counties have told me that in North Carolina, child-support arrears must be proven. Dollar by dollar, receipt by receipt. Without a lot of guidance to make that case. Without a formula that recognizes that somebody was supporting the child and it obviously cost something. And sometimes without judges who are willing to even deal with arrears that predate the court order for support.

So I am poring over old checkbook registers in hopes they might prove the rent I had to pay. Cursing myself for not saving the hundreds of dollars in medical bills I had to pay when my daughter fell off a swing and broke her arm in 2001.

I’m wondering if gas bills and car repairs count. How about electricity bills and food? After all, I drove and ate and warmed myself, not just my daughter. I want to be fair to her father, but I also want what my daughter is due.

I’ve had to take the "turn it in and see" approach. There will be much that never gets turned in because I have no proof for it.

Amid all this, it is troubling to note that the Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support, the only national grassroots advocacy organization for people like me, has struggled to stay afloat this year. While the 21-year-old group answers between 5,000 and 10,000 calls annually for help, most of its grant money has dried up.

Advocates in Holding Pattern

Child-support advocacy is not a priority with the funders anymore, said Debbie Kline, director of the Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support (ACES). "Basically, we’re in a holding pattern."

ACES is credited with, among other things, prodding the passage of several states’ felony nonsupport laws, income-withholding laws and the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, which makes it a federal crime for a parent to not support his or her child in another state.

As my own experience shows, the system needs to go forward, not backward. We still need the federal system of child support enforcement that ACES has long advocated to replace the fragmented concoction of state and county efforts.

A national child-support enforcement system could address all these glitches. That’s why Kline’s effort at getting custodial parents better politically organized needs all our support. That’s also why the political leaders who are abandoning parents who provide for their children need to be shamed from their jobs.

Why should a single parent supporting a child have to hold onto, decipher and then calculate dozens of items on hundreds of often-illegible receipts to prove he or she bought cornflakes and toothpaste and clothes for a child? Or "DRIBTH SMG 4" for $12.97?

Oh yeah, now I remember. Those are diapers.

Cindy Elmore is a freelance writer and assistant professor of journalism at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

For more information:

The Association for Children for Enforcement of Support:
http://www.childsupport-aces.org/

Office of Child Support Enforcement:
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cse/

SupportGuidelines.com:
http://www.supportguidelines.com/main.html

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