Wednesday, March 14, 2007

COLUMN -- Treating too many divorced dads like deadbeat dads

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:25 AM |  

Wednesday March 14, 2007

Molly Olson, volunteer executive director of the Center for Parental Responsibility, has hammered away for seven years at reforming family law policy and divorce practice that discourages both parents from being fully involved in the lives of their children. Most often, she is on the side of noncustodial dads who want, both financially and emotionally, to be a part of their children's lives but instead find themselves battling a bureaucracy more oriented to chasing down "deadbeat dads" than encouraging equal parental responsibility.

No one is opposed to wringing child support payments out of deadbeat dads, Olson says. But a family law process that treats all noncustodial parents as if they were deadbeats is counter to the best interests of children. It makes children the "prize" in custody battles and creates a winner and loser where cooperation ought to be the objective. Sometimes government's best role is staying out of the way … but not always.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner oversees the front line of federal, state and Ramsey County child support collection and enforcement. She has spent 14 years associated with child support collection and enforcement. She is emphatic and unapologetic in her respect for county employees who collect court-ordered child support. She has seen the positive difference that effort has made for many families. Child support collection is fundamental to getting families off welfare and keeping them off welfare. It is, Gaertner says, a major factor in reducing crime. Sometimes government's best role is being aggressive … but not always.

Olson and Gaertner are both passionate. They both want parents actively involved with their children. But they bicker like a divorced couple over what is best for "the children." The apple of their discord is Title IV-D of the Social Security Act.

The original 1935 Title IV legislation provided grants to states to serve "needy" families with children and provide "child-welfare services." By 1974, Title IV was busting the budget. Through Title IV-D, Congress sought to reduce welfare expenditures by enforcing child support collection from absent parents, usually dads, who abandoned their families. Through cost avoidance and cost recovery, it was the government that was to benefit. Any benefit to children and families was incidental, not considered an entitlement.

In 1996 the feds said if states wanted certain welfare funding, they had to have a federally acceptable child-support enforcement program.

The new strain of Title IV-D included some tough enforcement powers and incentives for the states. A change in language altered the focus of Title IV-D from "absent" parents who abandoned their families to "noncustodial" parents, regardless of whether they were actually "absent" from their children's lives.

In essence, Title IV-D collection and enforcement services were suddenly available to any custodial parent who wanted them. Title IV-D agencies grabbed the opportunity to attract more federal money. They expanded collection services beyond "needy" families to middle-class and even well-to-do families — even where there hadn't been problems with collecting child support. If a little collection does good, they reasoned, then more collection must do more good.

That brings us back to the crux of the discord.

Olson looks at Title IV-D and sees "program creep" — expansion well beyond congressional intent and legitimate federal authority. Gaertner sees Ramsey County collecting court-ordered child support payments, helping needy families, and asks, "Where's the harm?"

If there is harm, Gaertner says, it lies in the "devastating" federal cuts to the Title IV-D program. She supports a proposed $8 million state appropriation to make up the federal shortfall. Olson opposes the appropriation, claiming Title IV-D has morphed into a middle-class child-support program that lets government intrude where it has no financial interest and costs taxpayers millions in unnecessary expense.

The harm, Olson says, comes from applying harsh measures aimed at fathers who have abandoned their children to fathers who, despite divorce or separation, have never been absent from their children's lives. The characteristics of the Title IV-D program that help Gaertner collect child support from absent fathers disrupt the relationship between children and loving and caring fathers who were never intended to be part of the program.

Enter constitutional lawyer Marshall Tanick of the law firm of Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen. In support of Olson's position, he's preparing for possible constitutional and statutory challenges to the Title IV-D program that would refocus Title IV-D on welfare recipients and those in danger of slipping onto public assistance. It might also provide needed precedent for setting elusive limits on government's "spending power" — the practice of making federal funds contingent upon state actions.

Title IV-D as originally intended is an effective tool for getting needy families off and keeping them off welfare; but expanding Title IV-D beyond its original role of cost recovery and cost avoidance is to risk Lord Acton's corruption by power. Olson is right that Title IV-D needs reform. Seeing not the dangers of its excess but only its benefits, Gaertner's interest lies in wielding Title IV-D power, not curtailing it. That is a challenge for others. Tanick appears ready to take it on. I wish him well.

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