Trapping dads

Posted: Feb 21, 2001 12:00 AM
Alabama child support collectors have let loose the dogs of war, and fathers-rights activists are crying havoc. Specifically, the state has begun a controversial newspaper-ad campaign aimed at rounding up so-called "deadbeats" who fall behind in their child support payments. The first ad, which ran in Alabama's daily newspapers Sunday, is titled "Lost Dogs: Have You Seen Us?" and pictures 10 of the state's worst offenders as required by a bizarre new law passed last year. The "Ten Most Wanted" law, passed during the 2000 legislative session, requires the Alabama Department of Human Resources to list the names, photos and other identifying information of 10 delinquent child support obligors. To qualify, the offending parent must have demonstrated a long-term lack of cooperation. Original drafts of the legislation addressed only "deadbeat dads," but protests prompted lawmakers to change the wording to "deadbeat parents." One woman is pictured among the 10 faces now posted on the DHR Web site ( Inclusion of a woman hasn't placated outraged father-activists, who are charging civil rights violations and considering class-action suits against the state and participating newspapers. The figure of one woman among 10, say the dads, only underscores the imbalance in child-custody awards. Women are awarded child support in 80 percent of divorces. Although Alabama fathers aren't condoning the failure by others to pay child support, they object strenuously to the state's assumptions about parents in arrears and to officials' methods of pursuit. Murderers, they say, are treated with more respect. Inarguably, states may play a useful role in helping custodial parents collect money from absent parents, but criminalizing "deadbeats" in such a public way can't logically be considered fair or helpful. Contrary to myth, most deadbeats aren't exactly tethered to the Nasdaq. Except for the rare, headline-grabbing zillionaire who abandons his family for Temptation Island, most are poor to broke. A University of Wisconsin study found, for instance, that more than half of nonpaying, unmarried fathers earned less than $6,155 per year. Reliable figures on child support payments are hard to come by. The U.S. Census Bureau reports are based only on reporting by mothers and are much lower than what fathers report in independent surveys. The popular understanding that $34 billion is owed in back child support was based on estimates of what would be owed if all mothers were granted an award and if all fathers earned the median income. That's a lot of "ifs" and flies in the face of reality. A 1995 U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Brief, for instance, showed that during one year (1992), only 12 percent of custodial mothers due child support got none. Of 56 percent who were awarded payment, 37 percent received all or some. Forty-four percent of women with children were awarded nothing, most because they were either never-married or the "fathers" were poor. Clearly no one excuses men (or women) who abandon their children, but fathers rightly view such demonizing characterizations of "deadbeats" as part of a continuing trend to minimize the importance of fathers to family life. Publishing pictures of parents and calling them "dogs" in such a public forum does little to advance the cause of family values and ultimately hurts children most of all.