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Demonizing deadbeats is not the answer


Under current law in most places, a deadbeat dad can be sent to prison for failing to support his children. His name can be turned over to credit bureaus. A lien can be placed against his real estate property, and his wages can be attached.

Even so, the U.S. Justice Department reported last year that, nationwide, noncustodial parents -- the overwhelming majority are fathers -- owe more than $34 billion in delinquent child-support payments.

Cracking down on deadbeat dads has become a political rallying cry in both Washington and Annapolis and a key component of welfare reform. In both capitals, legislators are considering measures that would allow motor vehicle agencies to suspend driver's licenses, and make it easier for officials to find parents who change addresses or jobs or who flee across state lines.

"Deadbeat parents should be sent a loud signal," says President Clinton. "If you neglect your responsibility to support your children we'll suspend your license, garnish your pay, track you down and make you pay."

So my question is this: Who are these guys, these so-called deadbeats? How do they get away with not meeting their obligations? Why do they refuse to support their children? And if we cannot compel deadbeat dads to pay under laws that have been getting increasingly harsh in recent years, how much tougher will we have to get? Will we eventually institute capital punishment for deadbeats?

"First of all, this is such an emotional issue that we prefer to use the politically correct term, 'delinquent parents,' " says Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Human Resources. " 'Deadbeat' comes from that portion of the public that wants to see them drawn and quartered."

Ms. Szablya says some parents become delinquent in their support payments because of economic hardship. Maryland estimates that, due to hardship, about a third of $700 million in back payments will never be collected. Other parents, she says, refuse to pay because they can't stand their former spouse.

Most delinquents, I suspect, fail to support their children out of a combination of the two: They fall behind because of financial problems. But their resentment -- against both the courts and spouses -- makes them reluctant to take drastic measures to catch up. The crackdown probably will hit this group hardest.

But is toughness the best approach? Fathers say it is not.

"Nothing they try will ever work until states take a holistic approach and start working to maintain a father's entire relationship with his children, not just treating him as a walking wallet," says Rachmiel Tobesman, president of Fathers United for Equal Rights of Maryland, Ltd., an organization for divorced dads. "The first priority has got to be to make the father be a part of his children's lives. What [officials are] doing now is out-and-out punishment. It is beating up on the working guy who is trying to make ends meet and trying to be some kind of a father to his children."

Mr. Tobesman appears to have a point. For instance, the 19 states that currently suspend the driver's license of a deadbeat dad report only modest collection success. But the Census Bureau reports that 80 to 90 percent of the fathers with joint custody or visitation rights pay support voluntarily. Unfortunately, 38 percent of fathers have neither custody nor visitation rights.

Acknowledging this fact, Maryland has launched pilot programs aimed at involving fathers with their kids: a visitation remediation program that helps negotiate visitation rights, and a Young Fathers, Responsible Fathers program that helps young men develop skills both for work and as parents.

Ms. Szablya says both efforts are successful.

Says Mr. Tobesman: "If we really care about children, we would fTC educate fathers about their total responsibility -- emotional, financial, and moral. Then we would make it our first priority to reinforce that responsibility."

But this kind of approach rarely seems to appeal to short-sighted politicians looking for dramatic quick fixes. Those officials find it easier to demonize dads. Never mind that kids ultimately aren't helped. And never mind that a society that chases demons is a sad, sick and haunted society, indeed.

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