The pain of a deadbeat dad


I AM A DEADBEAT dad. I owe back child support I can't possibly pay. Sooner or later I will probably go to jail.

I went to a child support hearing on Dec. 1, 1994, with $540 in hand, ready to give that money to my ex-wife. She was willing to accept it because it was more than I had been able to pay in the past.

But $540 was not enough for Assistance State's Attorney Linda L. Panlilio, who ordered me to sign a piece of paper that waived my right to an attorney -- and obligated me to come up with $2,500 by Feb. 8, 1995, in addition to making $120 weekly child support payments between now and then. If I did not sign, she said, she would put me in jail.

I refused to sign. And after Ms. Panlilio's threat of incarceration, I decided not to pay the $540 because I may need it to hire a lawyer. The Public Defender's Office only takes on a limited number of child support cases, and I won't know if mine will be one of them until 10 days before my trial date.

Telling a man who earns under $200 a week that he has nine weeks to raise $2,500, and ordering him to pay another $120 a week at the same time, is asking him to do the impossible, especially if he may be forced to pay a lawyer $100 an hour -- or more -- to keep himself out of jail for the crime of not having enough money in the first place.

But in the fantasy world of child support enforcement, asking for the impossible is all in a day's work. I have now spent two days as a courtroom observer, trying to learn how the system operates. And during those two days I saw man after man being told he must either fork over more than he was earning or go to jail.

The threat of jail is not an empty one, because a man who signs documents, in court, saying he will pay a given amount per week -- or a fixed "lump" sum by a certain date -- and doesn't do what he promised to do is held in contempt of court, which means he is subject to automatic incarceration. That these documents are signed under duress in courthouse hallways, and that the men who sign them do so only because they are told they will be jailed if they don't, makes no difference to the judges they face.

As I watched, three men were sent to jail on contempt charges for failing to pay court-ordered child support. All of them were much like me -- over 40, with no formal education beyond high school, and in their present predicament because they now earn only a fraction of what they were able to bring home 10 or 12 years ago. All three were shocked by the ease with which they were convicted. And as their sentences were pronounced, all three hung their heads in shame.

None of the three wanted their names used here, and I can't blame them. It is not easy for a man to admit that he can't provide for his children. And this emotional pride is what Ms. Panlilio and her associates use to put helpless males behind bars.

"You should be earning more," Ms. Panlilio once said to me. "You used to support your family. You can still do it. So sign here."

This is a seductive line, and I fell for it the first time I heard it. All it leaves out is one fact: That a male blue-collar worker like me, who once earned over $30,000 a year in a factory-based economy, is now lucky to earn $200 a week driving a taxi or clerking in a convenience store.

The jobs men like me used to rely on are now in Taiwan, or have been abolished by recent cuts in defense spending. Our hourly earnings are so low, these days, that we can barely afford to rent furnished rooms and buy food. We have no medical benefits or sick leave, so we must pay for our own medical treatment -- and we lose income for each day of work that we miss. We have come down in the world and we don't want to admit it.

It is not easy to stand up in court and say, "I made no money at all in either April or May. During those months all that kept me alive was charity from friends," even when it is true. It is hard to admit that the business I hoped would pull me out of society's bottom level has failed and left me deeply in debt.

And when someone like Assistant State's Attorney Linda L. Panlilio stands next to my ex-wife in court and tells me I must pay more money than I now earn or go to jail, I feel even more shame. I feel like a loser my children should not associate with, which is why I haven't seen them in more than three years despite a divorce settlement that gives me almost unlimited visitation rights.

Right now I owe about $8,500 in back child support. Some of this "debt" piled up while I was unemployed, and the rest accumulated while my income was in the $100 to $150 a week range and I could not possibly pay $120 a week in child support.

I probably could have paid $20 or $30 a week in all but the worst times, but after being told repeatedly by assorted child support officials and prosecutors that I would go to jail if I didn't pay the full amount owed -- whether I had it or not. I decided to pay nothing.

Attempts to get my support payments lowered did not work. No matter what I do. I must pay amounts that are simply beyond my means -- or go to jail.

Every letter sent to a father who owes child support contains the phrase "Warrant for your arrest" or the word "incarceration." From day one, that father is treated as a criminal. And this is the main problem with the way we now collect child support.

Turning fathers into criminals gives Ms. Panlilio a high conviction rate and makes local sheriffs happy around election time, when they can get on TV by rounding up "deadbeat dads" in front of the cameras. But treating child support as a criminal matter helps no one else.

We need a family court system that has the power to collect money from absent fathers without first turning them into criminals. We need a system based on mediation, not vituperation. Recently, several judiciary committees have proposed the development of a separate, non-criminal family court in Maryland to handle paternity, child support and related cases.

Eliminating conflict, not creating it, would be that family court's main task. I would hope that such a court would recognize that children need fathers who support them to the best of their ability, not strangers who are in jail because they couldn't come up with money they simply didn't have.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore cab driver.

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