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On and On, Over and Over: The Gender War in Child Support Enforcement Court.

The gender war starts in the hallway, even before the courtroom doors are opened. Gravitating to other women in twos and threes, the women murmur quietly about their last time in court. One complains that her former husband spent $500 on a tattoo yet told her that he had no money for their daughter's school supplies. She adds that her child support should be higher, but the other ex-wife--she glances down the hallway toward a blonde, thirty-something woman--"got to social services first." Later in court the two women will be side by side to face a judge and the common father of their children, akin in their recent lack of child support.

The huddles of men are larger and louder, echoing through the crowded basement corridor before the 8:30 a.m. court opening, the time when we all were subpoenaed to be there. They laugh and joke about sports or people they know. They seem almost jovial. Many seem to know each other. I, too, recognize a handful from previous court appearances.

We're all crowded together waiting for the courtroom doors to be unlocked, but the women don't talk to the men, and the men ignore the women. As the doors are unlocked, those in the crowd push through, knowing that they might stand in line for two hours awaiting their child support-enforcement caseworker. Most of the women and some of the men find a spot on the hard courtroom benches. The others get in line.

This is the way it works in child support-enforcement court in my county. Court starts at 8:30, but the judge may not show up for another hour. In between is a game of debt reduction or, sometimes of economic recovery for the parent whose child support obligation is reduced or forestalled for another month or for the parent who gets arrangements made for her child support payments to resume. It is at the same time a monthly earnings report and a debt collection process, sometimes stern, sometimes exasperatingly resigned.

The lines are for noncustodial parents to either pay up their past child support obligations or to explain why they cannot. In most cases, the parent pays a few hundred dollars and arranges for a new wage-withholding agreement at a new job, with an order to come back to court the next month for a progress report. Cases go before the judge only after they have been through the caseworkers. In this court, there are so many child support debtors that the lines and discussions are still in process as court begins. They continue, in low voices, while the judge and attorneys deal with the cases that are ready.

In my county, child support court seems to be mostly where the poor and working class come to work out the costs of raising children. "I have some money for Miss Moore today," one man proudly says when he reaches the front of the line, as if the money is going to his caseworker. The woman standing in for Miss Moore asks the next man in line: "You got some money? If you got some money, we can talk." If he doesn't, he could be jailed. A little money--and a plan for the next month--is usually enough to avert the worst, though.

Also averted for many is the settlement of arrears, or past unpaid child support obligations that accrue higher and higher on paper. Many parents owe thousands in accumulated missed back payments--which have added up to $105 billion in child support arrears still owed nationally since 1975, according to a 2007 Urban Institute study. (1) Most of the arrears are owed by the poorest of the poor. Although some in this group are incarcerated, institutionalized, or disabled, the study explains, others show little income because they are self-employed, working under the table, or in illegal activities. In my court, the typical resolution is for an extra ten, fifteen, or, sometimes, twenty-five dollars to be appended to the monthly child support obligation in the hopes of chipping away at the accumulated debt.

A cornucopia of ages waits in the line to see caseworkers in my court. Over here is the ponytailed boy who looks barely eighteen, a wispy mustache on his soft baby face. Nearby is a gray-haired man with a cane, similarly owing money for the support of his offspring. Behind him is a girl who looks to be thirteen. She grins at the woman behind her at discovering a folded five dollar bill in her wallet. Sometimes it is hard to tell who is the parent and who is the child, whom the occasional mother totes to court with her.

The decorum of television courtrooms is absent here. Despite the sign outside about appropriate courtroom attire, most are in jeans and T-shirts, sweat suits, or team jerseys. Judges regularly admonish the crowds to be quiet, but the courtroom murmur always returns. I only heard it quiet for long when a female judge once warned that she would order contempt of court charges against anyone in the crowded courtroom who was not an attorney, a custodial parent, or a parent owing money. When that happened the woman beside me and I gave one another a "you go, girl" look. The young man in front of us shook his head, then turned around to complain that a month ago the same judge had jailed a man who had been hospitalized for three months, unable to pay his child support. He clearly expected sympathetic agreement. Instead, the woman beside me replied, "I need her today. I'm in here every month."

Like her, I am also a regular in child support-enforcement court. First came the court date to set up child support, nearly four years after I first applied for it while supporting myself and my daughter on a graduate school stipend. Then came the court date to set up the payment of arrears, which is the retroactive unpaid support. New court dates get triggered every time a payment is missed. Then if a paying parent's financial circumstances change, he or she can ask for a court date to lower the obligation. This usually triggers yet a new court date a few months later for a progress report.

Today, I am owed tens of thousands of dollars that I know I will never receive. Yet, I am clearly in better shape than most in the courtroom with me. I often wonder where the other middle-class parents are whom I know are raising children with little or no financial help. Perhaps because most middle-class parents set up a financial arrangement for their children in their divorce decree, the child support system is not typically involved. Perhaps unfamiliar with social services, they have no idea how to proceed. Maybe they do not want to deal with the frustration and bureaucracy and frequent days required off work. Or possibly, not being in the financial straits of those with lower incomes, they simply wash their hands of the fight.

Most of those parents who are owed unpaid child support--6.1 million--are custodial mothers. About 678,000 custodial fathers are owed past child support, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (2) That ratio seems matched in my many courtroom visits. Most of the debtors are male; most of those owed are female.

The demeanor mostly matches the circumstances, too, with the women quiet and serious, the men mostly loud and matter of fact, only occasionally looking uneasy when warned or admonished by the judge. Many of the same parents are in court on a regular basis, their support payments ebbing and flowing as employment and health come and go. No small number testifies about back problems and disabilities, their injuries from jobs in construction or loading trucks. Attorneys often mention "public assistance arrears," where the custodial parent received public assistance while the noncustodial parent did not pay. The one not paying is then often obliged to pay back to the government the public assistance the other might not have received had child support payments been coming in. Often, however, the public assistance arrears are forgiven from the debt.

Frequently, there seems simply not enough money to pay for separate households. I came in once during the middle of a case where a man making minimum wage owed child support to more than one woman for the care of multiple children. The judge looked at his laptop screen for a long, long time, then audibly sighed at his calculations. "I know this doesn't come close to being enough to raise a child on," he told a mother, shaking his head. "There just isn't any more money. I just don't know what else I can do."

Such predicaments aren't a rarity. In my court, it is not infrequent that men are in court owing support for the care of children by two or three women. That was the case for one woman beside me, who was called before the judge along with another woman, well appointed in a red dress and heels. For several months, the father hadn't been paying the child support he owes to either woman. He tells the judge he'd filed for disability but was denied and now is trying to get a new business started selling used appliances part time. The two women, now sitting side by side at the front of the court, look at each other and raise their eyebrows. Their common debtor unites them now.

The man has filed a motion to stop the required payments to one woman, given that their twelve-year-old daughter recently moved in with him, his new wife, and yet three other children, all living in an apartment. In her sworn testimony, the woman in the red dress acknowledges the changed circumstances. But given the man's multiple children, her court-ordered child support had been just $27.64 a month. With the daughter now living with her dad, "I told him I was willing to pay him the $27.64 a month that he paid me," she told the judge, dryly. "And I don't receive it every month. Twenty-seven dollars right now is not filling my gas tank."

But it is the past-due child support that is at issue this time. The man promises the judge he can make up the owed money to both women "over the next few weeks." He, like most, is ordered to return for a progress report the next month. Like nearly everyone in my court, it seems, he won't get paid time off for his mandated return.

In every third or fourth case, a county attorney mentions that a defendant "needs to be advised." Then the judge tells the debtor that he could go to jail, depending on what happens in his case, and asks the man if he would like an attorney. Many of the debtors are poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed one, but most refuse, seeming to know the drill. For nearly all, the threat of jail is hollow. Judges would clearly rather see a parent working, however unsteadily.

In line and in testimony, the men often grumble about the mothers to whom they are ordered to pay support. One man with a long dreadlocked ponytail laughingly complains to those around him that his nineteen-year-old son is still in the tenth grade. He blames the boy's mother, saying their son is still in school only because the mother wants her $500 a month child support. Most child support obligations end when a child graduates from high school or turns eighteen and is no longer in school.

Another irritated man asks if the court will order a paternity test on the child for whom he pays support. Under cross-examination, he admits signing hospital papers as the father when she was born but adds that the mother left with the child the same year, and he has not seen the girl in the eight years since then. The judge flatly denies the request, calling it "too late." "Well, then I want regular visitation," he shoots back. But this is the wrong court for that and he leaves angry. My ex-husband's child support infrequency has been similarly motivated. Angered by an early court decision that awarded temporary sole custody to me, he has rationalized his nonpayment as Robin Hood justice for what he sees as an unfair court system that favors mothers. From him, our confused child hears that I "lied" to the judge. From me, she hears that her father quits jobs to avoid paying his fair share.

On another day in court, the man with the large tattoo said to cost $500 clearly visible on the back of his neck is called before the judge. He sits at the table for defendants accompanied by an older woman. Two of the women he owes support to are seated at a table opposite him, beside their caseworkers and an attorney for the county. A third woman whose name is called does not show. Acting as his own attorney, the man calls one of the women to the witness stand. He clumsily asks questions about her home, her car, and the job for which she says she is paid $11.50 an hour with no benefits. Their daughters have no medical insurance, she says. When he asks about her new husband's income, he is stopped by the judge, admonished, and told that he can't play attorney anymore.

Later, he complains to the judge that he lives in a storage building on his parents' property and would like to be able to afford something better for his children's visits, which he could if his child support payments were lower, he says. He is flatly turned down. As I leave the court at the lunch break, one of the women sees me on the sidewalk just outside the building. "Did you see his mother up there with him?" she says, smoking a cigarette and laughing. "I told you he was a momma's boy."

The battle is over, but the gender war continues, month after month, in child support-enforcement court.


(1.) Elaine Sorensen, Liliana Sousa, Simon Schaner, and the Urban Institute, Assessing Child Support Arrears in Nine Large States and the Nation, prepared for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Office of Child Support Enforcement, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C., 11 July 2007. Available online at:

(2.) U.S. Bureau of the Census, Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2005, prepared by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, Washington, D.C., August 2007. Available online at:
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Author:Elmore, Cindy
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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