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Fisher: Virginia's child support enforcement is a sad joke

Fisher: Virginia's child support enforcement is a sad joke

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If one needs cheap entertainment, one has only to venture into one of Virginia’s Juvenile and Domestic District Court hearings when an issue of child support is being addressed. The reason it is entertaining is that typically nothing in general substantively or legally happens to the noncustodial parent who owes support monies or is in arrears to his or her child(ren), except for attending attorneys making a profit.

The Virginia Division of Child Support Enforcement is managed and overseen by the Virginia Department of Social Services. The amount of support monies to be paid is established by judges who use a simplistic calculation system based on the parents’ financial resources. On the surface this would appear to be the accountability needed to force parents to financially provide for their children, but no! There are myriad single-parents who struggle paycheck to paycheck to financially care for their child with limited to no support from the “deadbeat” parent.

I am a huge advocate for holding parents accountable for the care, welfare, and financial support of their children. But, the DCSE has multiple flaws that aid and abet noncustodial parents to eschew their financial responsibilities.

First, DCSE has no “teeth” to enforce noncustodial parents to pay what is owed to their children. The courts are to serve in the role of placing sanctions for nonpayment and arrears, but seldom do judges enforce these consequences. Realizing that most (although there are some!) judges who are not so gullible as to believe the numerous excuses proffered by the offending “deadbeat” nonpaying parents, judges “talk a good talk” by making threats of dire consequences for nonpayment, but only in a very few instances are these consequences imposed. So the “deadbeat” parent skates out of court cocksure he or she is safe to continue being financially irresponsible to their children.

Second, many of the “deadbeat” noncustodial parents are working “under-the-table” jobs such as being a handyman or day laborer where there is no accountability to pay taxes much less their child support. Judges seldom push these individual to get a real job to demonstrate their income. The United States Code makes it a crime for the noncustodial parent to willfully neglect their child support obligations. Additionally, if the noncustodial parent owes more than $5,000, or if the payments are more than one year past due, the courts can pursue jail time, but judges rarely do. The reason generally given for not placing the offending “deadbeat” parent in jail, is that if he or she is jailed, then they cannot work to pay the support. Humm?

Third, since Virginia, as with most states, legally treats child support obligation and child visitation separately, there is no motive for the deadbeat parent to uphold his or her financial support obligations. It is a “win-win” for the deadbeat parent who gets to visit and parent his or her child, but is free from financial concerns. Domestic defense attorneys support this arrangement as it gives them more opportunities to go back to court which, to say the least, is in the attorney’s financial best interest.

Finally, even when the DCSE attempts to collect owed support money from the “deadbeat” noncustodial parent by garnishing wages and collecting their tax refunds and so forth, if the noncustodial parent owes the government taxes or fines, then that money is withdrawn before the rest of the funds are released to the custodial parent — a process that often takes months, if not years, for the support money to reach the child.

In the end, it is the child who suffers due to inept follow-up by DCSE and with the courts/judges not imposing threatened sanctions. With all the expressed verbiage and claptrap talk by the courts concerning the “best interest” of the child this rings hollow when the “deadbeat” parent is treated as the victim of circumstance (e.g., poor John is struggling to find work), rather than the child’s victimizer.

In essence, until the courts/judges and DCSE take serious their role in holding noncustodial “deadbeat” parents legally accountable, then the system remains corrupt and broken. Moreover, until legislators (many are who attorney’s who profit from the current arrangement!) make changes by combining visitation with child support obligations, “deadbeats” win and the child loses.

Fisher is a Roanoke native and retired mental health professional and social science researcher.

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