The Doofus Department

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Those
madcap child support officials are at it again. Ever vigilant in
their pursuit of the elusive deadbeat, these Wile E. Coyotes of
family policy are devising ever-more outlandish schemes to snare
their quarry. It is ironic that a prominent theme in today’s media
culture is so-called doofus
dads
, bumbling fools invariably defeated by the superior wisdom
of their wives and children. For despite ever greater outlays of
taxpayers’ money for ever more intrusive incursions into civil liberties,
it is not so much the fathers as their pursuers who are shooting
themselves in the foot
.

Their
latest escapade concerns Viola Trevino, who discovered she could
obtain a child support order against a man without the inconvenience
of actually having a child. Steve Barreras was forced to pay $20,000
for a child that, it turns out, never existed. Barreras protested
for years and produced documentation that no child could possibly
exist, but he was ignored by New Mexico’s Child Support Enforcement
Division. “The child support system in this state is horrible,”
an Albuquerque woman tells a reporter. “A woman can walk into their
office with a birth certificate and a u2018sob' story and the man on
that birth certificate is hunted down and forced to pay child support.”
Yet the agency – which ironically claims to be keeping an eye on
other people’s parental “responsibilities” – claims they were not
responsible for the shakedown of Barreras, because they were “merely
enforcing child support already ordered by a judge.” No automatic
provision requires the return of the fraudulently ordered payments,
so to recover his money Barreras must hire more attorneys and sue.

Though
officials try to dismiss such shenanigans as aberrations, they proceed
logically from the child support system, which was created by lawyers
and feminists not to provide for children but to plunder fathers
and transfer their earnings to other grown-ups. In an increasingly
typical decision, a Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled in November
that a mother could collect full child support from two men for
the same child.

But
mothers are not the only ones using children to make a fast buck.
Such apparently inane rulings are explicable only by the fact that
child support is a moneymaker for lawyers, judges, bureaucrats,
and government coffers, plus private hangers-on – all at the expense
of fathers and federal taxpayers.

Michigan
Attorney General Mike Cox recently hailed the passage of six (!)
new laws that he says will help collect child support. But Cox already
has egg on his face from his ill-fated scheme to recruit the state’s
children as government propagandists. Cox offered free Domino’s
pizzas to children who designed billboards vilifying their own fathers
as deadbeats. He even invited mothers to express their feelings
about their former husbands through their children’s artwork. But
far from shaming the supposed scoundrels, it was Cox who was forced
to retreat with his tail between his legs. He cancelled the campaign
when first the public and then Domino’s directed more anger against
him than against the fathers. One political cartoonist showed Cox
telling a young child that she could not see her father but she
could have a pepperoni pizza.

Michigan’s
enforcement methods have been the subject of federal legal challenges.
Attorney Michael Tindall relates in Michigan Lawyers Weekly
how he was arrested without warning when his payments were current.
Wayne County enforcement agents admitted under oath that they frequently
increase accounts without valid court orders. A federal court ruled
that Michigan violated Tindall’s due process rights under the Fourteenth
Amendment. Yet the agency defied the court and even initiated another
round of enforcement using the same illegal procedures to collect
the same arrearage they had admitted was erroneous. Cox’s campaign
came as Michigan was set to lose $208 million in federal funds if
it did not meet federal guidelines for organizing its collection
system. To comply, the state promised to accelerate the very measures
that the federal court had ruled were in violation of the Fourteenth
Amendment.

In
just the last few months, repeated exposés of mismanagement
and fraud throughout the child support system have poured forth
from journalists, scholars, and even some officials themselves.
These include charges of illegal and unconstitutional
practices that violate basic civil liberties
.

In
Society, Bryce Christensen writes, “The advocates of ever-more-aggressive
measures for collecting child support…have moved us a dangerous
step closer to a police state and have violated the rights of innocent
and often impoverished fathers.” In The
Law and Economics of Child Support Payments
, William Comanor
and a team of scholars have documented horrific abuses. Ronald Henry’s
essay calls the system and its rationalization “an obvious sham,”
a “disaster,” and “the most onerous form of debt collection practiced
in the United States.” The fraudulent and predatory nature of the
child support system has been documented in peer-reviewed publications
by the Independent
Institute
, the National
Center for Policy Analysis
, the American
Political Science Association
, and repeatedly in Society.

In
2002, a Georgia superior court ruled that the state’s guidelines
“bear no relationship to the constitutional standards for child
support” and create “a windfall to the obligee.” Characterizing
the guidelines as “contrary both to public policy and common sense,”
the court noted that they bear no connection to any understanding
of the cost of raising children. “The custodial parent does not
contribute to child costs at the same rate as the non-custodial
parent and, often, not at all,” the court notes. “The presumptive
award leaves the non-custodial parent in poverty while the custodial
parent enjoys a notably higher standard of living.” The court anticipated
the findings of Comanor and his team: “The guidelines are so excessive
as to force non-custodial parents to frequently work extra jobs
for basic needs…. Obligors are frequently forced to work in a cash
economy to survive.”

A
Wisconsin court likewise found that state's guidelines “result in
a figure so far beyond the child's needs as to be irrational.” When
a court struck down Tennessee’s guidelines on similar grounds, the
state Department of Human Services (which jails fathers for violating
court orders), announced they would not abide by the ruling.

One
may disagree with these assessments. Yet despite admitting that
the system it oversees is “way out of balance,” the federal Department
of Health and Human Services (HHS) has never even acknowledged these
scathing allegations or made any effort to correct them.

Last
summer, HHS’s Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) held an
invitation-only meeting for local officials and a few organizations
and announced (in a perhaps unfortunate wording) a new “five-year
plan” called the National Child Support Enforcement Strategic Plan.

OCSE
Director Sherri Heller promised to develop fairer procedures. Yet
nothing in the Plan addresses the violations of constitutional rights
and civil liberties. In a peculiar example of Orwellian newspeak,
the Plan promises to build a “culture of compliance,” in which parents
support their children “voluntarily” but also says that “severe
enforcement remedies” will be used against parents who fail to volunteer.

The
Plan includes nothing about the desirability of observing due process
of law or respecting constitutional rights. No concern is expressed
that guidelines be just and appropriate. Nowhere is the charge addressed
that child support may be subsidizing family breakups, nor is the
possibility raised of using federal subsidies to encourage shared
parenting, which would relieve the overall enforcement load. No
concrete measures or incentives are advanced for requiring or encouraging
the involvement of non-custodial parents in the decision-making
or raising of their children.

None
of the scholars who have criticized the system’s ethics and methods
was invited to speak at this or any other meeting sponsored by OCSE.
Instead house academic Elaine Sorensen was trotted out to reinforce
the official line. Sorensen dismissed the Georgia Superior Court
decision as “only one judge’s opinion.”

If
any public official (plus millions of citizens) is alleging that
federal police operations are sending innocent people to prison,
one would think this at least a matter for discussion, if not investigation
– especially in an agency that acknowledges its operations are
“way out of balance.” But OCSE have their fingers in their ears.
One official acknowledged that in preparing the Plan no solicitation
of public comments was ever issued and no systematic citizen input
was collected.

The
appointment of a new HHS secretary offers the Bush administration
the opportunity to honestly confront the sprawling welfare machine
in its destructive entirety. Though Mike Leavitt seems to have little
experience in these matters, he may also arrive free of the ideological
baggage that made his predecessor Tommy Thompson one of the most
authoritarian and disliked figures in the administration.

The
Associated Press reports that Indiana is losing more than $57 million
a year in state and federal tax dollars to collect child support
payments averaging about $54 a week. Yet in a bold leap of logic,
the AP blames the boondoggle not on the legislators who are wasting
taxpayers’ money but on unnamed malefactors who are about as real
as Viola Trevino’s baby.

December
27, 2004

Stephen
Baskerville
[send him mail]
is a political scientist at Howard University and president of the
American Coalition for Fathers and Children.

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