Child Support: Can fathers get a fair shake from this system?

The dirty secret of the divorce industry is that child support has little to do with supporting children and everything to do with increasing the power of adults: judges, lawyers, district attorneys, social workers, bureaucratic police and many others who have a vested interest in separating as many children as possible from their fathers.

By Stephen Baskerville

A 41-year-old welder from Milford, N.H., recently received what some are calling a death sentence for losing his job. That is not how the charges against him read of course, nor could they, because he was never charged with or tried for any crime.

Brian Armstrong was a father who lost his job and allegedly fell behind on child support. Though actively looking for work, he was jailed Jan. 11. One week later he was dead, apparently the victim of a beating by correctional officers. No one alleges Armstrong did anything to provoke the beating. Another inmate saw him taken to a room with a restraining chair and then heard screaming for 15 minutes before seeing Armstrong dragged away. Medical workers told his mother that his body was covered with bruises and that he died of a massive head injury, though more than two months later she is unable to get a death certificate with an official cause of death. “I feel there is something very remiss,” Armstrong’s mother told me.

How typical was Armstrong’s punishment? We do not know. Some fathers’ groups have alleged police beatings in the past but have been unable to document their claims. Other allegations of prisoner mistreatment have been directed at the Hillsborough County, N.H., facility, where Armstrong was being held, and the incident is under investigation. But the victim of the worst brutality appears to be Armstrong–a father convicted of nothing. Was he beaten up because he was a deadbeat dad, a member of a class of officially designated villains? No other group can have their constitutional rights simply set aside. No other group can be demonized in the mass media by their own government and their highest leaders with no right to reply in their own defense.

Fatal beatings of fathers are probably not widespread in U.S. jails, but the Armstrong case illustrates that something is seriously wrong with the punitive measures taken against parents who have fallen victim to the divorce machinery.

Another fatality that recently has come to light exemplifies a much more common form of death sentence routinely meted out to fathers. In March, Darrin White of Prince George, British Columbia, was denied all contact with three of his children, evicted from his home and ordered to pay $2,071 a month out of his $2,200 monthly salary for child and spousal support. White also was required to pay double court costs for a divorce that, according to his family, he never sought or agreed to. In fact, the judgment was even more severe, since White paid an additional $439 to support a fourth child from a previous marriage. According to sources close to White’s family, the stress of losing his children rendered him medically unfit for his job as a locomotive engineer, leaving him $950 a month in disability pay. In March, White hanged himself from a tree near his home. No evidence of any wrongdoing was ever presented against him.

The fate of White is increasingly common. There is nothing unusual about this judgment, the Vancouver Sun quotes former British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Lloyd McKenzie, who pointed out that the judge in White’s case applied standardized guidelines for spousal and child support. Essentially the same guidelines are used in the United States and many other countries, with similar consequences. In Britain a group called the National Association for Child Support Action has published a Book of the Dead chronicling 55 cases where the official court coroner concluded fathers were driven to suicide because of judgments from divorce courts and hounding by child-support agencies. According to Health Canada statistics, suicide among younger men has risen dramatically along with the divorce rate and about 80 percent of suicides in Canada are male.

The courts that issue these draconian sentences are not criminal courts. They are family courts, infamous bureaucratic tribunals once characterized by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas as kangaroo courts. They largely are immune from constitutional protections of due process and have almost unlimited powers to destroy families and lives, usually of citizens who have done nothing legally wrong.

Armstrong did not abandon his children, as the Clintons liked to say of the deadbeat-dad class. He merely lost his job. That didn’t mean he didn’t love his son. He saw his son. He called him every week, according to Armstrong’s former wife. “I’m having a hard time. My son’s having a hard time because there’s just too many unanswered questions,” she told the Manchester Union-Leader.

How is it possible in the United States for a citizen to be jailed without trial and beaten to death? How can citizens charged with no wrongdoing lose their children and be forced to pay charges that are clearly beyond their means and then punished as criminals when they inevitably fall short?

The dirty secret of the divorce industry is that child support has little to do with supporting children and everything to do with increasing the power of adults: judges, lawyers, district attorneys, social workers, bureaucratic police and many others who have a vested interest in separating as many children as possible from their fathers. By then setting child support, alimony, court-ordered attorney’s fees and other arbitrary charges at levels that are impossible to pay, and bringing the full force of the state to bear on those who fail to pay them, the divorce industry has created a perpetual-motion machine that thrives and grows by destroying fathers and families. Here we have a textbook example of bureaucratic aggrandizement: With each plundered father comes the demand for more courts, more lawyers, more bureaucracy, more plainclothes police and private collection agencies to pursue him and to plunder more fathers and turn them also into impecunious deadbeats.

Like so much political chicanery today, all this is conducted in the name of children. Yet they are in fact its greatest victims, cynically exploited in a game of power played by grown-ups.

“My dad was abused by the justice system,” writes White’s eldest daughter, who is 14. “My dad was a very good father and wanted the best for all four of his children. All of us children were his life. He wanted everything he could possibly give to his children and what he couldn’t. The most important thing he gave his children were his love, and being there for them. He loved all of his kids equally, and with all his heart. He was a kind man who fought a good fight but no matter what he did or said he could never win with this system.” Things need to change for all fathers going through this same thing. We need to help; too many kids go without a father because of this; too many kids are hurt.

The story of White’s suicide has been carried on the front pages of several Canadian dailies, and two members of of Canada’s Parliament have issued urgent calls for changes in the law. Similar cases here in the United States receive no attention from the national press or politicians, and Armstrong’s death hardly has been noticed outside New Hampshire. Had he died at the hands of jailers in China or Turkey or Iran, or had he been jailed for any other cause, we would have expected protests from civil-liberties and human-rights organizations. But because he was a father who was alleged (but never proved) to be behind on his child support, he likely will be forgotten as one more deadbeat.

We should not be entirely surprised that a system of involuntary divorce and forced separation of parents from their children has led us down the path of government-sponsored death. When we grant people the power to commandeer the coercive apparatus of the state–courts, police and jails–to punish family members for hurt feelings or ordinary family differences, we are engaged in a very deadly business indeed. We have constructed a highly invasive government machinery to administer a punitive regime against forcibly divorced parents: Their movements are controlled; their private lives are monitored; they are interrogated behind closed doors; their homes are entered; their personal papers are examined; they are placed under restraining orders; their children are used as informers against them; their savings are confiscated and their wages attached; and their names are entered on various government registers–all before they have been charged with any crime. The government knows that by taking a man’s children it has created an outlaw.

What we are seeing today is nothing less than the criminalization of fatherhood: Fathers turned into criminals not by anything they have done but by the power of the state to seize control of their children and use them as tools and weapons to further increase government power. Alarmingly, this presumption of guilt is rapidly being extended to the rest of us.

The child-support enforcement office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is compiling information not only on fathers who owe child support but on all citizens. The rationale is that the child-support system renders us all potential criminals against whom preemptive enforcement measures must be initiated now in anticipation of our likely future criminality. Some people have argued that the state should only collect the names of child-support obligors, not the general population, notes Teresa A. Myers of the National Council of State Legislatures. But this argument ignores the primary reason for collecting the names, she explains with chilling directness: At one point or another, many people will either be obligated to pay or eligible to receive child support.

Some see the government’s destruction of the family as the logical culmination of the nanny stat–the state that attends to all our wants and protects us from ourselves and so gradually makes families and parents seem unnecessary. But a more accurate designation right now may be the paternal state, the state as surrogate father that provides and protects, and sets out to eliminate its rivals. The divorce industry is the most dangerous violator of constitutional rights in America today and the most destructive institution of our families and social order. It is time for a congressional investigation.

Baskerville is a professor of political science at Howard University in Washington and serves as spokesman for Men, Fathers and Children International.

Copyright © 2000 Stephen Baskerville
All rights reserved.
This article first appeared on 2 May 2000 in Insight Magazine, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. Insight Magazine is distributed to members of Congress.