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Dad: Falling behind in child support doesn’t automatically make you a ‘deadbeat’

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

A FATHER WRITES: Behind the headline “Bergen sheriff rounds up 55 deadbeat dads, moms,” there is much more than forgotten children and mug shots: The reality is that the children of the mothers and fathers taken into custody in most child support enforcement cases in New Jersey never see a dime of the recovered money.

I am not faulting Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino, whose officers are only executing warrants issued by judges. But let’s be careful about assuming that a parent paying child support is better than one who owes.

Most child support cases in New Jersey are brought by county Boards of Social Services. When a single parent in New Jersey applies for assistance, food stamps, housing, etc., he or she is required to assign the right to pursue the other parent for child support to the county. The money that is collected goes to reimburse Social Services for that public assistance.

While this is great for the taxpayer the children receive no more financial assistance than they would have if the “obligor” (parent paying the support) weren’t in the picture.

Many of the men and women “wanted” for child support arrears are people living below the poverty line. They have no ability pay the support ordered by a judge – or to navigate the court system to correct an order that is supposed to be based on true income.

Even with an attorney, an obligor who loses his or her job, is downsized or just simply finds himself or herself making less money has an all-but-impossible chance of reducing child support or ending it when the child becomes an adult. Many parents being arrested for non-support owe for children now in their 20’s and 30’s with kids of their own.

It is the obligor who must file papers with the court to stop child support when a child becomes “emancipated.” If they don’t, the county keeps collecting.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled in 2006 that parents jailed for child support arrears are entitled to an attorney.

“The right to counsel is among our most precious of constitutional rights because it is the necessary means of securing other fundamental rights,” the court found in Pasqua V. Counsel (186 NJ 127).

RELATED:

  • YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: One father who owes $445,886 in child support and another who’s behind $292,141 in payments head the Top 10 List of Deadbeat Dads in Bergen County, Sheriff Michael Saudino said today, announcing a three-day sweep that produced 55 arrests and an initial $35,190 off the $1.3 million that was outstanding. READ MORE….

“It has long been recognized that the right to a fair trial would be an empty promise without the right to counsel. [W]e must determine whether indigent parents charged with violating child support orders and subject to coercive incarceration at ability-to-pay hearings have a right to appointed counsel. We now hold that our Federal and State Constitutions guarantee that right.

“When an indigent litigant is forced to proceed at an ability-to-pay hearing without counsel, there is a high risk of an erroneous determination and wrongful incarceration. However seemingly simple support enforcement proceedings may be for a judge or lawyer, gathering documentary evidence, presenting testimony, marshaling legal arguments, and articulating a defense are probably awesome and perhaps insuperable undertakings to the uninitiated layperson. The task is that much more difficult when the indigent must defend himself after he has already been deprived of his freedom.”

Seven years later, some counties in New Jersey are ignoring that ruling.

When a parent in New Jersey is locked up for child support arrears, he or she is brought before a judge – and in most cases is required to pay 10% of the arrears or face incarceration for “willful non-support.”

George Washington did away with the “debtor’s prison” approach more than 200 years ago. So “willful non-support” isn’t as much punishment as it is coercion. Unemployed? That’s no excuse. Homeless? Not good, either. Been in jail? Sorry.

Basically, if you are breathing, you have the money and simply refuse to pay.

So you go to jail for two weeks and the judge reviews your case. Still breathing? Haven’t paid the 10%? Back you go for another two weeks. After an average of 45 days, the judge will let you go — only to face another arrest warrant two weeks later.  Along with the warrant for arrest comes a suspension of your driver’s license and any professional licenses issued by New Jersey.

Jails throughout New Jersey are teeming with “deadbeat” parents missing their children’s graduations and birthdays and having to explain to their employers why they missed work. Open warrants and child support arrears are, for many, the reason why one parent is not playing a substantial role in the raising of his or her children.

The measure of a good parent is not based solely on compliance with a court order. Most definitions of a good parent don’t include a financial quota or hold a more wealthy parent as better than one with less means.

When law enforcement makes an arrest we are all reminded that a person is innocent until proven guilty — but when it comes to child support enforcement we are quick to judge.

I am not saying that everyone who owes arrears on child support are victims. I am saying that many of them aren’t exactly “deadbeats.”

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Paul Nichols is the Publisher of the Bergen Dispatch , a North Jersey news site “dedicated to the belief that the free press is the watchdog of our government and the decline in resources in local journalism poses a threat to the well-being of society.” A “computer guy” by trade, Nichols founded and operated one of the first Internet Service Providers in North Jersey and was a security consultant for several Fortune 500 companies. He was also Chief Technology Officer for a computer software company with offices in New Jersey and Israel.

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