I had a deadbeat dad. The kind of slacker so egregious—so blatant in shirking his responsibilities—that he and his generation of counterparts inspired a series of draconian laws to combat their “free spiritedness.” My father (I wince to refer to him as that) exists as a transitional fossil in the evolution of child support in this country. He was between the time when men were by default the automatic and sole breadwinners of the family and the time when the full force of the state would come after you for a late installment.
My mother gave up the right to sue for child support in the divorce; an antiquated idea that largely no longer exists. My chromosome contributor went about his life of mystical self-discovery rarely mentioning or thinking about his two children. Meanwhile, we were on food stamps, school lunch programs and other social services. Mostly we went without.
By the time I was a teenager and in foster care, the laws had caught up to dear ol’ dad and sent him a bill in the form of a tax lien. I’m not sure if he ever actually paid it. I expect to hear from him if he ever needs a kidney.
I share this not for sympathy; I offer it because if anyone should have absolutely no tolerance for deadbeat parents, it’s me. If anyone should want to see loafers and serial impregnators punished, it’s me. If anyone would get some revenge-based pleasure out of seeing deadbeat dads suffer at the hands of the law—it’d be me.
But the police shooting death of Walter Scott, a man in and out of jail for the “crime” of failure to pay child support, has given me pause. Scott, father of four in South Carolina, had a warrant out for his arrest when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. He fled the scene, only to be shot in the back by a police officer now charged with murder. (Something that would have never transpired had a video of the incident not surfaced.)
What Scott’s death has highlighted is a system that is cruel, arbitrary and punitive toward fathers and strangely dismissive of the best interests of their children. Under the guise of budgetary issues and fueled by a puritanical moral crusade against seemingly casual sex, we’ve been incarcerating men for failure to pay for their children. Men who cannot pay child support for any reason are being sent to jail.
There aren’t comprehensive numbers of how many people go to jail for failure to pay child support, arguably one is too many. The New York Times reports, “But in 2009, a survey in South Carolina found that one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed in 2010. The Record of Hackensack, N.J., reported last year that 1,800 parents had been jailed or given ankle monitors in two New Jersey counties in 2013.” A 2007 study of child support arrears by the Urban Institute of nine large states noted, “Nearly three quarters of the high debtors [those who owed more than $30,000] had no reported income or reported incomes of $10,000 a year or less.”
These laws were designed to tackle middle- to upper-class fathers from skipping out on their obligations. They’ve also created debtors’ prisons for the fertile yet marginalized among us.
This attempt at recovering money from state coffers doled out to fatherless children is costing the state money in incarceration, court costs and paperwork. It’s just shifting expenditures, investing heavily in this sadistic public humiliation for child abandonment. When in jail, men don’t work—sometimes after jail they can’t work—and then, as we’ve seen, they can slide into the world where the best option seems to be bolting from a trigger-happy cop during a routine traffic stop.
None of this is in the best interests of the children. None of this makes their lives better—or more secure, comfortable or hopeful. It makes them into a curse—a bane to their fathers and then they’re still sans child support. Child welfare is the point of these skirmishes and yet children have become collateral damage.
As a replacement for a scorched earth crusade to make deadbeats’ lives miserable, we should be focusing on how all children—even the children of rotten parents (like mine)—should have a certain level of care. They should have the same opportunities in this world as people with decent parents. They’re faultless in this melodrama and forgotten at its conclusion.
We’ve perfected destroying the lives of derelict fathers; instead we could be concerned for their children.
They’re worth more of our time and attention than their parents.
Photo by Rennett Stowe