The Doofus Department

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