Treating Unwed Daddies as Wallets

Posted Friday, August 27th, 2010 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Child Support, Contempt/Enforcement of Orders, Jurisprudence, Law and Culture, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, Of Interest to General Public, Paternity, Visitation

I had lunch yesterday with Charlie F.P. Segars-Andrews, who mentioned she had been contacted to do work with an agency, Responsible Committed Fatherhood Initiative, attempting to assist fathers establish visitation at the same time the Department of Social Services establishes child support.  Given my interest in assisting such fathers obtain court-ordered visitation–my most recent volunteer case for Pro Bono Legal Services was just such a case–I offered my help.  We both recalled the Father-To-Father Project, run approximately a decade ago by Lisa Potts, which attempted to similarly systematize the creation of visitation orders concurrent with DSS child support orders.  That effort fizzled out (no fault of Ms. Potts’) with limited success.

Child support cases brought by DSS do not allow counterclaims by the father for visitation.  Thus the system creates and supports a system in which child support will be set without visitation being set and requiring fathers to bring a subsequent lawsuit to establish visitation.  Further, the state provides attorneys to establish and enforce child support without providing attorneys to establish and enforce visitation.  Thus, child support against unwed fathers is established routinely; visitation for such fathers is established on an ad hoc basis.

I have a firmly held opinion that you can see what anything (a human, an animal, a culture, an institution, a government) truly values by observing what that entity is willing to devote resources (time, money, intellectual and emotional energy) towards.  You can swear on your grandmother’s honor that you love your cat but if all I observe is a neglected cat I am not going to believe you.  I suspect most adults view such situations the same way I do.  That being the case, I wonder how unwed fathers view our family court system.

That system devotes substantial resources to making sure such fathers pay child support (as our society believes children need the financial support of their fathers) but devotes almost no resources to make sure such fathers have a relationship with their children.  If I was an unwed father, I would take this to indicate that our culture places little value on my role as a nurturer of my child but places great value on my role as a wallet.  Suddenly, the cynicism such fathers have for the family court system becomes completely understandable.

It gets worse for such fathers.  Almost no justification will excuse a father from a child support obligation.  Short of a finding of disability or being indefinitely hospitalized, child support will be ordered.  A father’s substantial increase in income will lead to an almost automatic increase in child support if the mother requests it.  A father’s substantial decrease in income will be closely scrutinized and often will not lead to a decease in child support if the father requests it.  The family courts routinely used to jail fathers who fell behind on child support, even if a father fell behind on child support due to a faultless and sudden temporary drop in income.  Recently, with the recession, family court judges have become a bit more understanding towards such fathers: thinking they are being merciful by not incarcerating them if their prior payment history had been good but doing little (that I’ve seen) to ameliorate the problems of paying child support based on an income the father no longer makes.

In contrast, when such fathers seek visitation orders, the system sets roadblocks.  Almost no excuse can be used to justify a father not supporting his child.  Mothers raise many an excuse to justify denying fathers visitation.  There are, apparently, a number of fathers not too addicted or violent to hold wage-paying jobs but too addicted or violent (or so it is claimed) to have court-ordered visitation with their children.  Other than disability, I know of no defense a father can use to justify denial of a mother’s attempt to seek child support.  There are numerous defenses I have seen mothers raise, and the courts consider, to deny fathers’ attempts to obtain visitation.

Further, there often is a double standard when enforcing visitation orders.  As noted above, the court will accept few excuses from a father who fails to pay child support.  However a mother who denies court-ordered visitation will be allowed to raise all number of justifications as to why the court shouldn’t enforce its order (often the same justifications that were used to try to deny such fathers court-ordered visitation in the first place).  When mothers are found in contempt for visitation interference the court routinely awards attorneys fees, and requires hour-granted-for-hour-denied substitute visitation as its sanction, but does nothing further to change the mother’s unjustified attitude towards the visitation denial.  I have had fathers unjustifiably denied visitation on their wedding day granted an extra day of visitation as though that made up for father having his child absent from his wedding.  Some judges, whom I applaud, have started using criminal contempt as a sanction against mothers who repeatedly interfere with a father’s court -ordered visitation.  In my experience such criminal sanctions (i.e., jail) tend to get such mothers’ attention.  However fathers are vastly more likely to be incarcerated for failing to pay child support than mothers are for denying court-ordered visitation.

I would finally observe that I am almost uniformly awarded attorneys fees when establishing child support in a contested hearing and cannot ever recall being awarded attorneys fees when establishing visitation in a contested hearing.  The lesson I take from this is that the family court places great importance on establishing child support and much less importance on establishing visitation.

As I wrote above, folks see what a culture values by observing what it supports and devotes resources to.  If I was an unwed father caught in the family court system I would see our society as valuing me as a wallet and little else.  Only when our society devotes as much resources to helping unwed fathers develop a relationship with their children as we do to establishing that these children receive financial support from their fathers can we truly say that we value fathers.  Until then their cynicism is appropriate.

4 thoughts on Treating Unwed Daddies as Wallets

  1. MJ Goodwin says:

    Hi Greg. Maybe it’s just a difference in the locales we practice in, but I see Dad’s getting visitation and having it enforced all the time. I agree with you that until very recently the Courts have been reluctant to reduce support, but I am even seeing some of that now. The three local judges in Anderson very much value the father’s input in the lives of the children. I have put one Mama in jail for interfering with visitation. That was a while ago, though.

    1. MJ-

      Not disagreeing that fathers get visitation all the time. However no government resources are used to set up or enforce visitation. Government devotes much resources to setting up and enforcing child support. If you were a father within this system what would you think this system thought about your value?

  2. California observer says:

    Part of the problem is the obvious asymmetry between mothers and fathers, but another part is that our society values money way more than time and attention. Just as charities now value our paychecks more than our time volunteering, “parental duties” are more identified with paying rent, funding education, and buying goodies than with anything else.

    So the balance between “rights” and “responsibilities” is lopsided, since Dads are more identified with money (“responsibilities”) and Moms with time (“rights”).

    Too bad.

  3. Terry says:

    The state of South Carolina is crazy when it comes to child law and fathers rights. I am currently doing everything I can to gain right to my son. I have only been able to see him three times in 13 years. She was married at the time she got pregnant and did not tell me. So when the child was born she put the her husband on the birth certificate. So now I have no rights.

    I even have the full cooperation of the father on the BC and can not do anything. I talk to an attorney in Rock Hill named Jane Randall and her comment is a direct quote, “You are trying to bastardize a child that has a father”. This is the mentality of south people!

    She is on ever form of government assistance there is and has the following living in her home. Child one (ExHusband-1), Child two (Ex Boyfriend-1), Child three (mine), Child four (Exhusband-1). Then Child five (Her sisters son), Child six (Her current husbands son), Child seven (Her current husband daughter).

    Now with that being said no one outside the home is allowed to see the kids or bound with them as she always finds a reason to get made.

    I even have a court transcript where she admits under oath that I am the biological father.

    I have access to “Child One’s” hand written journal that has the following and way much more:
    -They are forced to call the current husband “Dad” or get in real trouble.
    -They were “LOCKED” in one room while the house was filled with black lights and the parents had friends over for an Ecstasy Party.
    -They are constantly under verbal abuse from the mother
    -They are constantly told how all the fathers and mother not in their life, “Are pieces of s**t”.

    With all seven kids, they are all on some type of prescription for a behavioral problem or mental disorder. She will take them to doctor after doctor until they agree with her what issue the child has.

    For my son he is on welfare, food stamps, Section 8, SSI and Medicare. I could provide him a stable home, full medical/dental/vision all paid by me. With all this and the full cooperation of the “Legal Father” there is nothing I can do. So, please explain to me how South Carolina is looking out for the best interest of the child.

    I could type all day but i am sure this blog has a limit at some point. I am very curious to see if the attorney responds to this comment, if so, what he has to say.

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