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MYTH OF THE DEADBEAT DAD the article...

Source: Readers Digest April 2001Pg. 120

MYTH OF THE DEADBEAT DAD Those who don't pay usually can't

By DONNA LAFRAMBOISE From NATIONAL POST

In July 1999, in a rundown part of Regina, a 39-year-old divorced father tied a rope around his neck and hanged himself in his basement. His children have not been told how their father died, so his family has requested that his real name be withheld. We'll call him Jim.

Jim worked as a mechanic. In addition to his children, he left behind grieving parents and siblings. And a two-page suicide note: "Since the separation, I tried my best to support my children and make a living. The end result was that it forced me into bankruptcy…. This is the only solution because I see absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel."

In October 1995 Andrew Renouf of Markham, Ont., left a similar suicide note. Describing how the Ontario government had seized all but 43 cents from his bank account on payday three days earlier, he wrote: "I have no money for food or for gas for my car to enable to work." He had tried to explain his situation to the child-support enforcement office, he said. "Several times their answer was, 'We have a court order.' I have tried talking to the welfare people in Markham, (but) since I earned over $520 in the last month, I am not eligible for assistance."

Renouf said in his note that he had had no contact with his daughter in four years, "I do not even know if she is alive and well," it read. "There is no further point in continuing my life. It is my intention to drive to a secluded area, feed the gas exhaust into the car, take some sleeping pills and use the remaining gas in the car to end my life. I would have preferred to die with more dignity."

Hazel McBride, a Toronto suicide researcher and psychotherapist, says she has encountered a number of such cases since the early '90s. One involved a small-business owner who'd faithfully mad his child-support payments until the recession hit. After the support-enforcement office seized money from his bank account, his business went under, his house was repossessed, and he suffered a heart attack. Eventually, he blew his head off.

"These are not usual cases," McBride says. "I had a man come to see me who had cancer and who had to leave his job as a truck driver. Being self-employed, he had no long-term disability. His wife had remarried and was living quite well, and she had the children. All he had left was a house that he had inherited from his parents. And once he made his support payments, he had no money for heat.

"That's one reason I stopped doing clinical work," says McBride. "The stories were so terrible, and there was so little you could do."

Whenever fathers and divorce are discussed, one image dominates: the deadbeat dad who'd rather drive a sports car than support his kids. It's not news that divorced men and women have little good to say about their former spouses. The interesting question is whether the system assists people during this difficult time in their lives or compounds their misery. From the aircraft engineer in British Columbia to the Prairie postal worker to the fire-fighter in Toronto, divorced fathers' stories are of a piece: Though society stereotypes these men relentlessly, most divorced dads pay their child support. Among those who don't, a small percentage willfully refuse to - the villains you always hear about.

What you haven't been told is that the other men in arrears are too impoverished to pay, are the victims of bureaucratic foul-ups, have been paying for unreasonable lengths time or have been ordered to pay unreasonable amounts. Their lives are being devastated by courts and governments that consider no measure too punitive in their fight against deadbeat dads.

A War Against the Poor. Fathers pushed to the breaking point rarely attract media attention because everyone simply assumes they are deadbeats. Even governments refer to them as "deadbeat parents" who hide from child-support payments and need to be forced to live up to their obligations. But studies indicate the majority of divorced men meet their obligations, and those who don't often have good reasons.

According to internationally recognized child-support expert Roger Gay, based in Stockholm, fathers in the United States "overall pay between 70 and 80 per cent of what is due." The difficulty in collecting the remaining amount is due largely to the fact that the war against deadbeat dads is really a war against the poor - against men who have always been economically marginal or have been impoverished by the divorce process itself. According to the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty, almost one quarter of nonpaying fathers in Wisconsin have incomes of less than $10,000, and only one in two has an income above $20,000. Other research shows that the unemployment rate is one of the most accurate predictors of child-support compliance - although even then, nearly half the men who are out of work in one sample still managed to pay the full amount of support.

Yet the stereotype of the divorced father with scads of money who mean-spiritedly refuses to hand it over persists - and negatively influences the courts. ______________________________________

The government refers to men whose support payments are in arrears as "deadbeat parents" ______________________________________

In the words of Pauline Green, a Toronto family lawyer, "Some judges think men have got off much too easily in the past with things like child support." Adds Susan Baragar, a Winnipeg lawyer, "There isn't equality within the family court. There's a standard joke among us lawyers: 'If you're the guy, just put on your helmet and duck.' Generally speaking, I know that if I represent the woman, it's going to go easier for me in court."

While society insists that divorced fathers be "held accountable," some researchers are asking whether the desire for accountability results in persecution.

Among Jim's papers were documents showing that in the year prior to his death, his financial situation had worsened. According to his signed affidavit, his expenses consistently exceeded his earnings by more than $100 a month. Out of a monthly take-home pay of $1,650, "my most significant monthly expense is the ($700) support payments I make for my children." That wasn't good enough.

Though Jim had owned the matrimonial home prior to his marriage, he was ordered to pay his ex-wife more than $8,000 for her half interest, and he was held responsible for a $3,400 credit-card bill. Arguing that he had no way to raise these funds, Jim attempted to declare bankruptcy.

In March 1998 registrar of bankruptcy Maurice J. Herauf ruled against him and ordered him to cover legal fees of his ex-wife, who opposed his discharged from bankruptcy. Herauf decreed that the now nearly $13,000 Jim owed would be deducted in $100 installments from every paycheque for the nest five years, leaving him about $650 a month to live on.

In June 1999 Herauf turned down Jim's attempt to modify the earlier judgment. Less than two weeks after he lost the appeal, Jim's family buried him. Neither his ex-wife nor his children attended his funeral.

Bureaucratic Foul-ups. Like many other divorced fathers across the country, Stan Gal has discovered that the child-support bureaucracy is a nightmare. Gal's daughter Vanessa is 24 years old and works at IBM Canada. Nevertheless, the Ontario government garnishees $286 for child support plus $117 for her university tuition from his paycheque each month.

Gal, who works for the Regional Municipality of York, north of Toronto, says he has been told the deductions will continue until he secures a court order recognizing that his daughter is no longer attending university. There are few checks and balances to guard against such un-warranted payments.

And child-support guidelines do not make it easy to accommodate changes that occur in the lives of the people who pay this support either. If these fathers find themselves unemployed, are forced into lower-paying jobs, are injured or on strike, they must hire a lawyer to get a court order to have their child-support obligations adjusted. Even in cases in which their child comes to live with them or is taken into foster care, it's the same story; Get a court order.

Now, after supporting his daughter for a full six years past voting age and with his two younger children likely headed for postsecondary education, Gal fears he will have to apply to the courts repeatedly to sort out matters that should be straight forward.

"I don't have a problem meeting my financial obligations to my children," Gal says "But there comes a point when you start feeling abused. That's what I'm feeling right now."

Ignoring Realities. The chief financial officer of a prominent corporation - we'll call him Michael - has his own tale to tell about the unresponsiveness of the child-support system.

In the fall of 1999, three Ontario Court of Appeals judges rejected Michael's plea to reduce his family-support payments. In their view, there was no reason why someone with a total income of more than $158,000 a year shouldn't continue paying $7,153 to h is former wife each month - $4,153 in child support, plus $3,000 in alimony.

The problem is that this represents 96 percent of Michael's monthly take-home pay from his job. After making his court-ordered payments, Michael is left with $302 a month on which to live. In Toronto, even a single man on welfare is allotted more - $520.

Michael is not alone. From one end of the country to the other, divorced men are being financially ruined by excessive child- and spousal- support orders made by judges whose grasp of basic economics is weak. What's worse, these judges profoundly misunderstand how the removal of the tax deductibility of child-support payments in 1997 has affected support payers' lives.

Michael's bankruptcy report states that when child support stopped being tax-deductible, he went from paying no tax on the portion of his income earmarked for family-support payments to paying $3,398 in tax each month on this amount. It is precisely this tax bite that has eaten up Michael's chance at a sustainable life. ______________________________________

After making child-support payments, Michael Is left with $302 a month on which to live. ______________________________________

"There's enough money to have a good life for everybody with what I make," Michael says. "I want to pay support. But it has to be reasonable and fair.

Another problem with federal child-support guidelines is that judges estimate what a payer's income is likely to be and then base support awards on this amount. When calculating Michael's income, the court included possible future bonuses and other income that can't be counted on.

Finally, the guidelines themselves should be challenged. Mike LaBerge, president of the Calgary chapter of the Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society, argues that child-support payments often dramatically exceed the actual costs of raising a child. According to figures published for 2000 by the Manitoba Agriculture and Food department, it costs $7,000 a year to raise a school-aged child and up to $9,978 for a child attending day care. Michael, whose children have special school needs, pays $16,000 a year for each of his three teenagers.

LaBerge says that our child-support system appears to have been designed not merely to ensure that children's needs are met but to transfer income from divorced fathers to divorced mothers. "Everyone says child support is about feeding the children, but it's not,"says LaBerge. "This is about punishing Dad, about making him pay."

Between them, the three judges ruling on Michael's case have apparently failed to realize how their ruling would translate in the real world. When Michael's financial ship sinks, his former wife's stander of living - and that of the children - will be profoundly affected. How anyone will benefit should the entire family find itself dependent on social assistance is a question no one seems to have asked.

HOW CAN we stop the misconceived war against dads that is driving good men towards bankruptcy, despair and suicide? A small number of changes would go a long way.

· Governments that truly care about children would declare both parents equally important by making joint custody automatic after marital breakdown except, for example, in instances of abuse. In Sweden, where 80 per cent of divorces now end in joint custody, child-support problems are almost nonexistent because the only money that changes hands are funds the parties negotiate between themselves. The courts and government stay out of such matters.

· Parliament must also ensure that divorced parents are treated no differently from married ones where the funding of postsecondary education is concerned. In two separate private-members' bills, Liberal Senator Anne Cools and Liberal MP Roger Gallaway say divorced parents should not be forced to pay support for children past the age of majority simply because these children remain in school. "Parents who are still married to one another have no legal obligation to finance postsecondary education," says Cools. "But divorced parents are being compelled by the courts to do so."

"A 30-year-old can be declared a 'child' for the purpose of a post-secondary support order while a 14-year-old can be an adult for the purposes of criminal law," adds Gallaway. "There is an incomprehensible, illogical element to this."

And provincially, all parents should be entitled to their children's school records as well as medical information unless a divorced parent poses a risk to his children. Currently, some noncustodial parents are being denied this information by schools and doctors because a small minority of divorced parents happen to be problems.

· The calculation of child-support should be based on the payor's net, rather than gross, income. At the high end of the income ladder, these amounts need to bear some relationship to the actual costs of raising children. In some cases, courts have determined support payers' gross incomes by including over-time earnings in the calculations - thereby locking these men into working long hours year after year.

Lawyer Susan Baragar points out how far such "deeming" of income is taken by the courts. "if I had a divorced dad who had a job and then quit because he didn't want to pay child support, you can be darn certain that the courts would deem his income based on what his pay used to be. So if you're a man, you're not allowed to go out and quit your job. But I've had a case where a woman had a $31,000-a-year job, went on maternity leave, came back and didn't like that job anymore. She thought she'd like to start her own business instead, so her income was reduced to zero - and she didn't have to pay child support."

· Just as we worry about welfare recipients becoming dependant, we need to be aware that large child-support payments (not to mention spousal support) can discourage women from becoming self-supporting members of society. Moreover, just as a small percentage of people receiving social assistance scam the system, a small number of custodial mothers cash support cheques to which they are no longer entitled. The government should warn people that this is fraud - and should prosecute offenders.

· Finally, communications between child-support collection agencies and other parts of government has to become a two-way process. Right now the support collection agency talks to the Transportation Ministry so that the driver's licences of those in arrears can be suspended. It talks to lottery officials so winnings can be seized. It talks to the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and to the Passport Office. So there's no reason on earth why the Employment Insurance office can't send a notice to the child-support collection agency informing them that a support payer has lost his job and therefore needs his support order adjusted. Nor is there any reason why it can't send another notice when the man gets back on his feet.

"Father" isn't just another word for a cash-dispensing machine. It's time our courts, our laws and our bureaucracies started treating divorced men like the full-fledged parents their children deserve.

Do you think divorced fathers often get a raw deal? Write to the address on page 8 or visit our web site at readersdigest.ca to post your comments in Join the Debate.

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