The Child Support Scam

April 24, 2004

by Roger F. Gay

Since the creation of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in 1975, government workers and lobbyists for private child support collection companies have been relentless in their efforts to misinform the public about child support payments and collections. A recent article published by in North Carolina provides a typical look at the propaganda effort.

The long title explains the impression that the article is intended to give: "Wake County Child-Support Workers Well-Intentioned But Overburdened; Child-Support Enforcement Needs Short-Changed By County Budget." Before going into detail, let me paraphrase the message; our accomplishments aren't impressive but we want more money anyway.

The background one needs to judge the message has never been presented to the public by the press (that I know of) outside of and Before the federal program was operational, about 70 percent of the amount of child support that was ordered was paid directly by noncustodial parents to custodial parents. An additional amount was paid to the government as reimbursement for welfare entitlements. According to research, divorced fathers (somewhat different for never-married fathers who are more often involved in welfare reimbursement and known to be different from noncustodial mothers) paid 90 percent of what was due, and fully-employed noncustodial fathers paid closer to 100 percent of what was due. Since the creation of the federal child support enforcement program which forces higher payments through expensive government payment systems, the figure previously at 70 percent has dropped to 67 percent. The primary reason for non-payment is that noncustodial parents are not able to pay as much as they have been ordered to pay. And some of the money that is currently paid gets lost in the new system.

The WRAL report begins with an overwhelming statement on the work load of case worker Lewis Jackson. "The Wake County Child Support employee is responsible for nearly 600 cases." What they don't say is that most payments are made voluntarily. No effort is required. When reminders and late notices are needed, they are automatically generated by computer and mailed without any effort being made by a case worker.

"Last year, Wake County collected more than $26 million in child support. Though that is a lot of cash, consider that more than 200,000 parents in the state owe more than $1 billion in payments." What they don't say is that the all payments made through the system, regardless of whether or not a parent has ever been late, are labeled "collections." $26 million in child support was paid in Wake County last year. What they also don't say is that it took more than a quarter century to accumulate the $1 billion arrearage figure. This is not, what might seem to be implied, the amount owed but not paid last year. Not subtracted from the figure are amounts paid off in subsequent years, in other states after parents have moved, settled through legal process, or that should be written off because noncustodial parents have long-since died, become disabled, or are otherwise unable to provide.

"According to Child Support managers, more staff is needed to deal with the problem. But that is not part of Wake County's budget proposal for the coming year." Given that there is no justification for the staff already on hand, and certainly none in an honest view of child support statistics, let's see how moved you are by the example.

"Beth Christo, whose ex-husband owes her nearly $20,000 for the support of their two children, said well-intentioned but overburdened case managers have given her the runaround for three years." "You go to Wake County, and they want to help you, but they just don't have the resources to do it," Christo said. "I have lost my car. I have moved my children twice. There are times when I don't know if I'm going to make it to pay day."

I don't know about you, but that makes me feel sad. What Beth apparently doesn't know is that most of the "collections" process simply involves waiting until a bloke can pay something. Sometimes payments are much more greatly delayed because threats connected to unreasonably high orders create psychological aversion to staying in contact with the system which in most cases is now the only legitimate point of payment. What to do? Let's look at the suggestion.

"Wake County Child Support Director Lillian Overton asked for 17 permanent positions in the next county budget. The request was denied by Wake County Human Services."

There is no word on why Beth's ex-husband is behind, but if he's typical, it's because he can't pay what has been ordered. Putting more workers on the government payroll won't help unless he's one of the people hired; perhaps providing the income he needs to make payments. I really have no personal knowledge regarding Beth's situation, but there are many noncustodial parents who can't make the payments they've been ordered to make. It is a fundamental consideration in setting child support amounts properly, that the amounts are based on what parents are able to provide. When circumstances change, such as loss of employment, timely adjustments need to be made to the amounts they are ordered to pay, so that uncollectable debts don't pile up as they do now giving the impression that more collection agents are needed. Custodial parents need to adjust their budgets and spending habits just like married couples and single adults would under similar circumstances. Just because a mother is divorced, doesn't guarantee a particular standard of living.

The lobbying effort is aimed at Wake County Manager David Cooke who presents budget requests to the county commission on May 17 subject to a final vote in mid-June. What should concern Wake County residents as well as people throughout the country, is the extent to which child support program employees misrepresent the status, benefit, and needs of their program. It is extremely unethical for government workers to mislead the public, and quite strange just that child support program employees are allowed to participate in lobbying activities as part of their official duties. Nothing lies within the ethical box except to accurately report as required. What really needs to be examined is whether program managers are violating ethical practice standards to such a degree that it is inappropriate to allow them to continue to hold positions of responsibility.

Roger F. Gay

Roger F. Gay is a professional analyst, international correspondent and regular contributor to, as well as a contributing editor for Fathering Magazine.
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