Shouldn’t having custody of a child terminate child support per se?

Under S.C. Code § 63-3-530 (17) “orders for child support run until the child is eighteen years of age or until the child is married or becomes self-supporting.” It has been my experience that when a girl under the age of eighteen gives birth and keeps her child, the family court does not terminate whatever child support obligation exists on this young mother.  Since few of these teen mothers are “self-supporting,” such a ruling comports with the language of § 63-3-530 (17).

However, while § 63-3-530 (17) says nothing about emancipation terminating child support, there is much case law noting that emancipation terminates child support. See e.g., Webb v. Sowell, 387 S.C. 328, 692 S.E.2d 543 (2010).  A teen mother might not be self-supporting but I don’t see how the law can consider the act of taking custody of another human being to be anything other than per se emancipation.  By what logic can someone be legally in control of another’s life but not be legally in control of one’s own life?  To use a picayune example, if teen mom wants to feed her child carrots but the teen’s parent wants her to feed the infant broccoli, whose decision stands?

One can easily understand the family court’s logic for not terminating child support on teen mothers.  Maternal grandmother (who is typically the person with custody of teen moms in child support situations) has her own burden increased by the addition of a grandchild to the household, especially since few unmarried teenage mothers are capable of raising a child without substantial assistance.  Reducing or terminating this woman’s child support at a time of increased stress is counterproductive, even cruel.

Yet legally compelling parents to support emancipated children is horrible jurisprudence.  Part of being an adult is accepting responsibility for one’s own actions and one’s own life.  Deciding to become a parent is a quintessentially adult decision.  To treat it as though it is not–to pretend that one can parent a child while still being a legal child oneself–is one of the more dangerous fallacies our culture is increasingly accepting.   Allowing people to take on adult responsibilities while treating them as children is a bad idea in general.  Allowing them to become parents while treating them as children is frightening.

Women aren’t wrong when they claim parenting is the most important job in the world.   Humans are creatures both self-aware and social; the act of parenting is the act of transmitting culture and values from one generation to the next.  To pretend this is a job children are capable of doing is wrong on so many levels: it denigrates what should be considered an elevated task; it courts–almost mandates–failure; it encourages those least capable of assuming this responsibility to undertake it.

I don’t want to be part of a culture that says that parenting is something a child can do.  A culture that truly believes parenting is “child’s play” is ultimately doomed.  It would help if our culture did a better job of discouraging teen pregnancy.  But when girls under the age of eighteen become pregnant, our culture needs to tell them to either become an adult and accept the responsibilities of adulthood or give their child up for adoption.  Telling such mothers they can become parents but remain children is dishonest to them, cruel to their children, and ultimately damaging our society.

Having custody of a child should be per se emancipation and should end any support obligations regarding the new parent.  While it might seem cruel to reduce the financial support for such young parents, it is even crueler to allow their children to be raised by children.


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