Mel Feit, arguing for dads on "Dr. Phil."

Child Support "Talking Points"

Television talk show producers usually ask us to submit a list of "talking points" prior to our appearance on a program. Presumably, they use those talking points to prepare their host and develop the show.

We thought visitors to this website might like to see the talking points memo we sent to the producers of "Dr. Phil" in advance of their February 27, 2009 show about child support.

Here it is…

NCM talking points for Dr. Phil show, "Forced to be a Deadbeat?"

Story One – Bill, in the midst of divorce, wants to take a lower-paying job so that he will have more time to spend with his children. His attorney has advised him that the court will not permit him to voluntarily lower his income.

The child support obligation of fathers is frequently based on a man's earnings history and potential. The assumption is often made that if a father is employed at a job earning less than he could theoretically be earning, then there must be some sinister motive for his under-employment. It is assumed that he chose a lower-paying job so that he could pay less child support.

Of course, if a man were not divorced, no judge could ever tell him what job to take, as long as he could provide a minimum level of support for his child. Many fathers change careers so that they can spend more quality time with their families. This employment strategy is laudable, especially at a time of divorce, when children may need more contact with their fathers. The court should have congratulated Bill for wanting to spend more time at home.

The inflexibility of the court in Bill's case is driven by money and gender. In a similar Wisconsin case, Chen v. Warner, the court allowed a mother to quit her job completely so she could stay at home with her children. Bill is right when he sees gender bias in the system. Despite major advances for women in the professional world, not much has really changed in how society views men: a father is still judged primarily by his ability to provide for his family. A man's worth is still judged by the money he makes. The society may say it wants men to be more involved fathers, but not really.

The imputing of income to fathers is often punitive… it forces a man to give up his dreams and to become professionally indentured. And as more men lose their jobs due to the recession (The New York Times reports that 82% of layoffs are male), child support calculated on imputed income will force men into homelessness and further despair.

Story Two -- On the "Tough Love" Raids in Phoenix, Arizona. Men who are delinquent on their child support payments are arrested and publicly humiliated.

According to The National Council For Children's Rights, about five to six million children are denied access to their fathers, often by women defying court orders for visitation.

Law enforcement should be even-handed. If the authorities feel they have to arrest fathers who don't pay support, they should also arrest mothers who don't allow visitation. Anything else is political grandstanding, not law enforcement. In fact, this kind of selective and politically-motivated enforcement adds to men's resentment and probably lowers the amount of child support collected, in the long run.

But it's good theatre and it gets votes. Who really cares about children?

Story Three -- Jason Caffey, former professional basketball player, earned five million dollars a year, and now owes back child support.

While Jason's story illustrates the problem with imputing income, it has to be differentiated from everything else that happens in the real world, where there are very few five million dollar men.

The Federal Agency for Child Support Enforcement reports that about 70% of all child support arrears is owed by men earning less than $10,000 a year. That's a current statistic. Ten thousand dollars, not five million.

Also, about 29% of fathers delinquent on child support are institutionalized, most of them in prison, some in prison for failure to pay child support. Mostly poor men, broken men and homeless men are being broken further by a heartless system pretending to care about children.

By the way, even if Jason were still earning five million dollars a year, NCM is not sure his child support should be based on that amount. Child support is not intended to be a financial windfall for a child's mother. It's not adult support.

Story Four -- Jennifer and Bret cannot adequately provide for their children because so much money is leaving their home and going to Bret's ex-wife, Heide.

Over the years, many second wives have complained to NCM that the courts don't care about their children. Jennifer and Bret's story reveals the ugly truth behind the child support industry: despite the rhetoric about "best interests of children," the collection of child support is mostly about money, gender and power.

If the system really cared about children, it would care about Jennifer and Bret's children and it would care that Bret be allowed to be a father to the child he had with Heide.

Incidentally, Heide's apparent refusal to give Bret meaningful parenting time with their daughter, may be sufficient cause for a change in custody.

ADDITIONAL NCM TALKING POINTS

1.) When fathers have shared parenting time with their children, they pay most or all of what they owe. So, society has a choice when it comes to collecting child support: We can use the heavy hand of government to threaten and arrest fathers, or we can make sure they get to see their kids.

2.) Most divorces are initiated by women. Practically speaking, many men wake up one day and everything they have cherished in their lives is gone, in an instant. Then, in the midst of their despair and confusion, when they are at their most vulnerable, when they may be suicidal, the authorities threaten to throw them in jail if they can't come up with a lot of money. It begs the question of when society became so lacking in compassion for these men who are suffering.

3.) As a rule, we don’t require non-custodial mothers to pay a penny in child support. We seem to know instinctively that you don't take a woman's children away from her and then demand that she send a check every month to the man who broke her heart and took away her family. We don't do that because we don't have the heart for it and we know it's wrong. NCM believes we should offer the same understanding to men who have their home and children ripped away from them. Child support obligations should be imposed more humanely.

4.) Generally speaking, men who resist paying child support fall into these categories:
a.) Men who don't see their children. Withholding a child support check may be their only leverage.
b.) Men who are impoverished. Child support collection is often about extorting money from a man's family and friends in order to keep him out of "debtors' prison."
c.) Men who are deceased. They don't necessarily disappear from the statistics showing that men are deadbeats.

5.) NCM thinks that the system of child support collection, which should be driven by a concern for children and parents who don't see their children, has become overrun by ideologues and bullies. The system is often punitive and mean-spirited and inflexible.

6.) There are probably very effective ways to collect more child support. For example, upon divorce, the court could establish bank accounts for the children. Both parents would deposit money into that account monthly, and any unusual child care expenses would be paid for with a check. That would build in mutual responsibility and accountability, both lacking now. It would be great for kids, but not so great for moms, so we'll never do it.

7.) On average it takes about 8% of a family's gross income to support a child. The average child support award is 17%. Many men want to know: What's the deal with the extra nine percent?

8.) As the recession deepens, more men will become unemployed. (The authorities are now bragging about stepped up child support enforcement as they attach men's unemployment benefits, their lifelines. It's shameful.) The child support obligation of these men will remain, so arrears will accrue. It will become impossible for many men to catch up and they will find themselves in contempt of court. The penalty for unemployment in a bad recession may be imprisonment. So, maybe it comes down to this: Either we build more prisons or we look for better ways to collect child support.