A Professor Who Has Studied the Child-Support Dilemma Concludes: 'jail Works, but Jail Stinks'

UPDATED 05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Florida is not the only state that jails significant numbers of parents who have fallen behind in child-support payments. In fact, it was a visit to a Detroit jail in 1971 that dramatically altered the career of University of Michigan law professor David L. Chambers III. As his students were giving legal advice to inmates at the Detroit House of Correction, a guard pointed out 50 or 60 men who had been incarcerated as "runaway pappies." Chambers was shocked, and more so when he found out that Michigan had jailed about 4,000 men for nonsupport. Subsequently, Chambers immersed himself in the problems of families shattered by divorce. The result was a shift in his professional focus from criminal to family law—and the first major study of child support to be published, Making Fathers Pay (Univ. of Chicago Press, $27.50). Chambers, 43, a father of three who is married to professional potter Mary Blanton Chambers, discussed his conclusions with correspondent Julie Greenwalt.

Why were you so shocked to learn men were jailed for nonpayment of support?

It was the scale of it that caught me by surprise. Most of the time we lock people up to keep them from doing bad things. When we lock up a non-paying parent, we can be absolutely certain that he is not going to be doing the very thing we want him to do—pay. The only justification for doing this would be either that we were so angry that we just wanted to punish him or that we thought it would scare him—or other people—into better behavior.

What in your study has most surprised you?

One, that nonpayment was as widespread as it was. As a naive, happily married person, this was a shock. Two, that jail worked. It works not so much for the people being jailed, but as a deterrent for others.

Short of jailing the nonpayer, how can a parent collect?

In most states, a mother who is not getting her money really has no choice but to try to get an attorney to enforce the child support. Most people have found this hopeless. What you really need is a detective to find the guy, and somebody to hound him, remind him to pay. Using $100-an-hour attorneys is an expensive and not very effective way of doing that.

And if that doesn't work?

A woman with a couple of children typically needs about 80 percent of the family's former income to continue at the same standard of living. A typical court order would provide for roughly 30 percent of the father's take-home pay if he'd been the sole wage earner before. So she still has that gap between 30 percent and 80 percent—even if he paid everything every week. He, on the other hand, paying 30 percent, can live at a better standard of living than he did when the family was together—as long as he remains single. When he's not paying, he's living vastly better, and she and the children are cataclysmically worse off.

Why doesn't he pay?

If there weren't such an enormously high level of nonpayment, I'd be inclined simply to say what many people say: It's a callous disregard of his family's needs. But I think the reasons are more complicated. One contributing factor is that most people don't feel they're very well-off. Even these men on their own feel they're financially strapped. This may have been part of the reason the marriage collapsed in the first place. Then, as time goes by, it is likely that he will attach himself to somebody else—new expenses. It is extremely likely that she will marry again. And that will alter the father's view of his responsibilities. I don't mean that he says simply, "Aah, he's enjoying her favors, he ought to pay." It's not that crass. The father feels cut out of the satisfaction of parenting.

He gets detached from the kids?

A lot of men feel after divorce that they're not getting to see the kids in the same way anymore. They're not experiencing the little events that make life with a family vital. That is, helping a daughter with her homework, teaching a son how to ride a bicycle. And in the end, the order to pay feels like taxation without representation.

What happens to the father/child relationship?

There's a very disturbing study by Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania. He's reported that, of children whose parents are divorced, more than half have not seen their father in a year. Now if you look closely at his figures you find that most children did see their father in the period initially after the separation. And there's this decline over time, which suggests to me that the strain of the visiting process and other events—his remarriage, hers—play a heavy role.

Other reasons?

There's often a lot of anger—he's being separated from the house and other things he paid for. Also, I think that for many men, money is a way of keeping a woman under control during marriage. And after divorce they can do the same thing. That is, her need is his justification for saying, "She's got to depend on me." Depression is another factor. Some people just can't function in the months after a divorce. I think that when they're not writing their support check, they're not paying their phone bills either. And what looks like wanton disregard of their children's need is simply one aspect of overwhelming depression.

How do some fathers get so far behind?

For whatever reason, once you get out of the habit of paying, it's harder to get started again. After a month or two you find yourself $50 behind, but soon it's $800 behind, and you're sure you'll never get out of this. It might as well be thousands. So you might as well not start.

Is the way fathers have to pay part of the problem?

Yes. Our system has been to wait until people get their paycheck each week, then expect them to remember to write a check to the other party. Just think of what would happen if the IRS collected income taxes that way.

Does threatening work?

No, but jail does. In Michigan, coupled with a well-organized system of enforcement, it's effective. But it is brutal.

What do you think of the proposed Congressional bill that would police child-support payments?

I think the only hope for dramatic improvement is a national system of mandatory wage deductions. The bill is good, as far as it goes. But it can't reach the self-employed; it doesn't require wage deductions until after the delinquency has been built up. An employer should have to check on each new employee to see if there is an order on record requiring a deduction. As imperfect as it is, this bill does it better than the present slipshod methods or the heavy use of jail.

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