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CAFC Opposes "Bad Dad" Reality Show

Fox Television is looking at a new reality show entitled "Bad Dads." The premise is that Jim Durham, director of the National Child Support Center, "functions as a sort of 'Dog the Bounty Hunter' for tracking deadbeats...." The show will target fathers who are behind on their child support by "making their lives miserable -- foreclosing on their house, repossessing their car. [Durham] will squeeze them...." CAFC wholeheartedly agrees that there are some "bad Dads" who have the financial means and legal obligation to support their children. They should pay, period -- no excuses. These men, however, are a small minority compared to most fathers, who struggle to meet their obligations, often while supporting a second family.

On April 28, 2008, CAFC's Executive Director, Michael Robinson, send a letter to Fox Broadcasting Company explaining why a show of this nature is demeaning to fathers and perpetuates many ill-founded myths surrounding child support. CAFC's letter tried to highlight the well-documented facts surrounding child support and to dissuade Fax from airing the program.

CAFC pointed out that the title of the show alone perpetuates myths and distorts the facts. The reality is that the rate of non-custodial mothers default on their court-ordered child support payments at a much higher rate (46.9%) than non-custodial fathers (29.9%). Source: Sanford Braver, Arizona University; Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, (Tarcher/Putnam: 1998), which is the largest federally funded research study ever conducted on the issues.

The Braver study also revealed that fathers with joint custody pay 90.2% of all child support ordered. Those with visitation rights pay 79.1%. Those with no access/visitation pay only 44.5%. This study also showed that almost half of all mothers see no value in the father's continued contact with their children following separation or divorce. And approximately 40% of divorced mothers report interfering with the father's relationship with the children. Much of this data was also substantiated in a Census Bureau report, Series P-23, No. 173.

While enforcement of child support orders is given high priority by our courts little is being done to enforce visitation orders. Emotional support through children’s contact with both parents is just as important as financial support. In fact there reams of data that show that children’s overall well-being is affected more by having substantial contact with both parents than financial support alone.

In recent years studies by the Urban Institute and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) have established that draconian government policies have contributed to the problem of uncollected child support arrears. All of the below referenced data from the Urban Institute studies on child support can be found in the report titled: Strategies for Preventing the Accumulation of Child Support Arrears and Managing Existing Arrears: An Update, by Paula Roberts, Center for Law and Social Policy and Elaine Sorensen The Urban Institute, October 6, 2005. Much of the same data was also reported again in the CLASP Policy Brief, Child Support Series, March 2007, Brief No. 2.

Here are just a few of the main findings by these studies:

• 80 percent of unpaid child support debt is owed by parents with less than $15,000 net income. Over half of the arrears are owed by debtors with less than $10,000 income but more than $20,000 in debt.

• Only 1 percent of child support debtors have net incomes over $50,000.

• 76 percent of recent arrears are held by debtors who cannot afford to pay the full amount of their support orders.

• 71 percent of child support debtors have at least one support order set by default.

• 70 percent of the arrears are owed to the government—to repay welfare costs—rather than to families.

• 27 percent of the debt is unpaid interest.

• Nearly 75 percent of arrears have been held longer than two and one-half years.

• States that set orders without the active participation of the obligated parent may end up with orders that are both unrealistically high and unenforceable.

• Child support guidelines often impose much higher burdens on low-income parents than on higher income parents.

• If a State charges interest on arrears, that amount is added to the total owed and over time can substantially increase the debt owed by the obligated parent.

• Orders that include retroactive support start out with substantial arrears so that right from the beginning the obligated parent is playing catch-up.

• There is a lack of a timely, user-friendly process for modifying arrears. If economic circumstances change, or a parent becomes incarcerated or institutionalized an order that was proper when set may become unrealistic. In the absence of a process for change, arrears will accumulate under the old order.

To help alleviate this last issue, CAFC played a major role in spearheading legislation in California (SB 1082 - Morrow/Ducheny), which was signed into law on August 30, 2005, with Urgency. Many military reservists were returning home to be treated as criminals when in fact nearly two-thirds were entitled to a downward modification of their child support because their military earnings were lower than their civilian salaries. This bill also took the historic step to protect their existing custody orders.

One of the problem with current laws is that there is no defense of laches in child support cases. As a result, an Obligor must maintain all records of payment for life (compared to banks, which only maintain records for 7 years.) In 2006, CAFC presented a real-life example to Assembly Member Mark Leno where a private collection agency had contacted an alleged Obligor father) claiming he had not paid his child support for the last 15 years. The collection agency made threats to place a lien on his property and other hostile actions. The private agency had been contacted by the Obligee (mother), who had recently learned that the father had come into a substantial inheritance. Fortunately the father in this case had every single canceled check and receipt showing he had paid all of his support over the years on time. The child was 23 years of age at the time this took place.

CAFC helped the father in this case get an attorney who advised the private child support collection agency that the father would not turn any records over until the mother had signed a declaration under penalty of perjury claiming that no child support payments were made. The private agency refused the request and to this date there has been no further contact made by them.

Because this has been a serious problem over the years a bill has been introduced in 2008 in the California Legislature to address the issue. The bill (SB 1255 Harman: Child support: arrearages) is being sponsored by the Family Law Executive Committee of the State Bar and will mandate that a declaration of payment history must be signed under penalty of perjury, filed with the court and served on the Obligor to assure due process. CAFC has been pushing to see this problem addressed for over 2 years now and we are confident that the problem exists in other states as well.

Another problem raised by this example is the predatory practices of the private collection agencies hired to go after support arrearages. In 2003, the California legislature started to take steps to stop the predatory practices of many of the private child support collection agencies: SB 339 (Alpert, 2003), SB 896 (Runner, 2005), and finally chaptered in 2006 in AB 2781 (Leno - Child Support Collectors).  See also, AB 2781 Senate Committee Analysis and Senate Floor Analysis.

Even when a child support Obligee does support his/her children, draconian policy does not allow them to get credit for the support they paid. A recent example was featured in a local Sacramento publication, The Sac News & Review, on October 11, 2007, entitled: "Deadbroke Dads: The system makes Darryl Gay pay child support. But it’s more than he can afford and his daughter doesn’t get the money. Is this how it’s supposed to work?" Mr. Gay, 41, continued to visit his daughter almost daily, and, though there was no child support order, he contributed to her upbringing by buying diapers, clothes, formula and other necessities. Nonetheless, the courts gave him no credit for the financial support he gave or for the time he spent with the child.

While current policies have placed a strong duty on Obligors to pay their child support, the same duty does not apply to parents receiving the support to actually spend it on the needs of the child. We have seen cases where Obligee, with no other form of support other than child support, used some of the money for their own cosmetic needs, such as breast surgery. We believe that policy should hold both the Obligee and Obligor equally responsible for ensuring the well-being of their children. That means that the support must actually be spent on the child, not just collected.

CAFC does not represent any subset of competing interests other than the welfare of children and families. In recent decades, the politics affecting families and children has become intertwined with gender politics. In our practices and research, we work equally often with women and mothers, men and fathers, and children. We are interested in the well-being of the next generation.

We sincerely asked Fox to consider the facts carefully before airing "Bad Dads."  We honestly believe that the show does not accurately represent the realities and facts, and could thereby cause more harm than good.