Saturday, April 14, 2012

Drug Tests for Child Support: A hundred kinds of wrong

I have three children. None of them have my DNA; I annexed them with my marriages. The word "step" is not in our family vocabulary, except when it's absolutely necessary to explain to outsiders the precise nature of our blended family. The genetics make no difference to me; I just say "I have three children." Two grade school sons, a young adult daughter -- and now a grandson.

The only difference for me is that sometimes, my wife and I need to deal with a man we variously call "the other daddy" or, when we're particularly annoyed, "the sperm donor." He walked out on Koni when the youngest boy (now almost ten) was just two. I met the youngest days after he turned four, when he was sad and angry and acting out. Out of the blue he would say in a heartbreaking voice "I miss my daddy." On one occasion he told his pre-school teacher his daddy was dead.

He has grown into a joyful and enthusiastic young man, and after one of the brief and rare visits from the other fellow he started calling me Daddy. I suppose that's fair, since I've now been in his life longer than the guy he now calls "Daddy Chuck."

My sons' biological father is a textbook deadbeat dad, connected with others of his kind who call themselves the "father's rights movement." I recognize their fingerprints all over the proposal, which the Iowa Senate wisely killed immediately, by Senator Mark "Chickenman" Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) to require drug testing of women receiving child support.

Receiving child support. That's -- kind of a moot question around our house.

There are so many things wrong with Chelgren's proposal that even though it died a quick death, the corpse should be kicked hard. I don't even know where to start (shouldn't it, uh, be the deadbeat dads getting tested first?) It's offensive enough that states are trying to link public assistance to drug testing. Add child support to that mix, and you're basically calling it "welfare." No. Child support is pretty much the opposite of welfare. It's two private individuals making the arrangements to use their money to provide for their children.

But again: we wouldn't know much about that.

The "father's rights" groups are a network for deadbeat dads to trade tips on how to dodge their responsibilities. They think of child support as "alimony" and they rationalize their abandonment of their children to one another. My wife's ex has used every trick in the book. He works at a series of short-term, traveling jobs, staying one step ahead of garnishment. His house, his cars, his boats, his gun collection, all in his second wife's name. She has a nice income as a certified public accountant that's "hers." Our lawyer tells us it'll be difficult to touch that money, but it may be possible.

It's pretty clear my wife's ex loves his toys more than he loves his boys. And since in many states compliance is measured in length of time without making a payment, there's a token amount about once a year. He's behind by more than I earned last year, a year when I had two jobs for a while to make ends meet.

One of our fellow Cub Scout moms had the same problem, an ex who was $40,000 behind. The guy offered a... "creative" sob story to the courts and got his obligation reduced to $100 a month. For three kids. And even that doesn't always arrive. She's not waiting for it. She went back to school, got a nursing license, and is taking care of things herself.

Not good enough for Senator Chickenman: she needs to pee in a cup.

Whenever Koni tries to communicate directly with her ex about the issue, she's met with a barrage of insults about incidents dating back to their failed marriage. A lot of marriages that end are abusive, and withholding child support is one more way to continue financial abuse even past the point when the marriage has ended. The attitude is clear: I shouldn't have to pay That Bitch any of "My" Money. As if the money was about her.

Oh, sure, he lavishes material attention on the boys during his three weeks a year. He makes sure they see him paying for the school clothes and toys, and the travel destinations are exciting. My wife and I take them to the grandparents, and quietly pay the rent and the bills however we can. I love my children with everything I have, but kids are expensive. We're always able to get the things they need, but we haven't always been able to take care of what they want. Wants are easy to cover for three weeks a year. But during the other 49, we're the ones who have to tell them no. And -- this is sometimes the hardest part of all -- we have to keep our mouths shut about why. (They're getting old enough to see through it.)

Things are a little better now, but there were too many payday loans, late fees and near-shutoffs to count. No complaints; that's what real daddies and mommies do. But there's a certain sacrifice of dignity in all these things, and now Mark Chelgren wants to add a guilty till proven innocent drug test to those indignities.

Koni has some more useful ideas:
I would love to see any deadbeat parents be forced to take "parenting" classes. If any parent wants to see their kids, but not provide for them financially, they obviously have something to learn about being a good-even great parent.

People have argued and insisted that jail is not fair and just. The reality is that most deadbeat parents aren't even trying to pay a regular monthly amount-deadbeat parents think that the custodial parent should pay for the bulk of the kids care, and they are getting away with it.

Most states require parents who are divorcing to take a class-"Children in the Middle." But they don't always enforce it and there aren't penalties for not attending. What we need is a required class for co-parenting and financial concerns post-divorce. Then if the deadbeat parents' ego is too big for them to attend a free class for the benefit of the children, steps should be taken to limit their exposure to their kids, or go to jail.
Go to jail. That's where this is eventually going to end for Koni's ex, and at that point his second wife will very quickly find the money that "just wasn't there" to get him out. Advice to others in our shoes: in some cases the bail can be set as some large percentage of the back bill, called a "purge payment." You may also want to look into public property records of the ex and of a new spouse or other relatives. In more and more states, those are public and on line.

In the meantime, we get the good stuff. We know our boys are happy and healthy and safe, and we enjoy the million little details. A small voice late in the evening asking "Daddy, can I have a glass of white milk?" Watching him have to duck to cut under the freezer door, when he used to be small enough to run under it without slowing down. Getting ready for our first season of junior high football.

My DNA may be a genetic dead end. But I'm a real daddy.


JD said...

Congratulations, Dad.

Don't feel bad about forgoing your child's "wants." Tell them up front that you will provide everything they need, but "wants" will have to wait until the kid has his own money.

Kids borrow your car until they can afford their own. They use your phone until they can afford their own. They buy their own pop. My boy even bought his own riding lawn mower rather than push my mower. He paid for it out of his mowing money. He even had to learn how to repair it. He now says it was profitable.

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