A Florida Judge Has a Remedy for the Child-Support Problem—jailing Fathers Who Welsh on Their Obligations

updated 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The delinquent father was unapologetic, a mite defiant even. Yes, he told the judge, he owed his former wife $1,070 for the support of their three children. But the $180-a-month payments were beyond him, explained insurance salesman Jesse Metz, because he had a second family to support and payments to make on the car he needed for his job. Judge Charles McClure crisply dismissed the excuses. "These children need support," he declared. "They come before any subsequent children, before any second marriage. They come before any automobile payments." After making that Solomonic declaration, the judge asked a very practical question: "Do you have any money on you?" Surprised, Metz replied, "Eight dollars." The judge instructed him to place the bills on the table, then asked, "Is that a gold ring on your hand?" Metz nodded sadly and tugged the ring from his finger. The judge ordered the confiscated cash and jewelry delivered to Metz's former wife, Versie, as a down payment on the arrears. The judge also directed Metz to sign an authorization for automatic deduction of child support from his paycheck. Metz signed.

From the bench in his Tallahassee, Fla. courtroom, Judge McClure, 48, has become the bane of the deadbeat daddies. In the last 19 months he and four fellow justices in Leon County (pop. 162,000) have heard 4,000 child-support cases, sent 397 nonpaying fathers (and three mothers) to jail and collected $3.7 million in cash, plus an uncounted number of confiscated cars, boats, watches and other valuables—all of which have been turned over to the plaintiffs.

McClure's tough justice is a radical yet effective approach to a distressing national problem, the interminable wrangles over child support that linger after the dissolution of bad marriages. According to the 1981 Census, more than half of the 5 million men (95 percent of those ordered to make the payments are men) are paying only some of what they owe or none at all. Many of their ex-wives have been forced onto welfare, sticking the state with Daddy's bill. The delinquent parents have their own complaints. Visitation rights may be inadequate or vengefully withheld. Finances may be overburdened and the fathers resentful of paying for children they cannot be with (courts award sole custody of children to the mother in 90 percent of divorces).

In a new effort to address the situation, President Reagan is expected to sign into law a bill requiring all states to withhold wages of parents in arrears on their payments. Says Congress-woman Margaret Roukema (R-N.J.), a force behind the Congressional bill, "The present system is a disaster. We must go to a truly national system if we are to enforce child-support commitments in all states. The bill should become law shortly." The legislation will be a triumph for the grass-roots campaign of single parents. They have organized across the nation to form groups such as KINDER—Kids in Need Deserve Equal Rights—which is based in Flint, Mich. and boasts 700 members in 37 states. An umbrella group, Parents Without Partners, at 800 638-8078, lists similar groups nationwide.

Judge McClure and his colleagues began their harsh approach to child support in September 1982, when overloaded circuit courts sought their help. In the first four days of hearings 80 men went straight from the courtroom to jail, compared with the previous rate of about two a month. The men either pay up or serve a full six-month term.

"We seldom see nonpayment because of lack of money," says McClure. "It arises from a deliberate decision not to pay." Once he determines that a laggard has the financial means, McClure is insistent—pay or go to jail. "We're here to collect for the kids," he explains. Parents are routinely told to empty their wallets and pockets. One man had to hand over $900 when McClure spotted a suspicious bulge in his sock.

A postal employee, admitting arrears of more than $10,000, challenged McClure by flatly refusing to pay. "I told him," the judge says, " 'I don't know how much annual leave the post office gives you, but it's going to have to be six months, because that's what I'm giving you.' " Marched out in handcuffs, the man changed his mind in the holding cell and telephoned his bank.

Fear of being frisked for their wads by McClure's bailiffs has made many men, who had boldly held out on their ex-wives, agree to pay before their days in court. The sheriff's office now collects about $780,000 a year more in voluntary payments than it did the year before the program started. "When word got out on the street about what these judges were doing," says Joe Boyd, a lawyer who represents the state in child-support cases, "guys started knocking the door down to catch up on payments."

Generally McClure feels no compunction about legally harassing the welshers. "In 10 years on the bench, it's the most rewarding thing I've done," he says. "I've never had so many people stop me on the street and pat me on the back." He did have second thoughts about the wisdom of taking $76 from one father. The man was left with no money to get his second wife and himself to their home 200 miles away, and fainted as he left the courtroom. "I felt awful," McClure recalls.

Only two of McClure's cases have been appealed. In one, the judge went so far as to strip a nonpaying father of an earring he was wearing. In appealing, lawyers charged the judge's conduct was degrading. The appeals court upheld McClure.

The second case was based on a stickier legal point—whether a jailed father should have had an attorney present in court. Failure to pay child support is a civil proceeding. McClure, however, construed failure to pay as criminal contempt of court and ordered a jail term. Legal Services lawyers argued that a father facing jail be given the same rights as a criminal defendant. The case became moot when the father in question served his six months and then disappeared without paying.

The local American Civil Liberties Union chief holds an unexpectedly mild view of the judge's search-and-seizure policies. "Overall, putting these cases in the hands of county judges like McClure has helped the community," says Marc Taps. Of course, Taps is also the senior attorney of Legal Services. "Some 80 percent of our clients are women trying to collect child support," he says. "You have to applaud the effort to get people to pay for their children."

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