The truth about ‘deadbeat dads’
Provincial Minister of Community and Social Services Madeleine Meilleur calls Ontario’s new child support enforcement website a “huge success,” but fathers’ rights advocates are questioning both its efficacy and its underlying ideology.
The website features photographs and profiles of “missing defaulting support payors,” and offers the viewers the opportunity to make anonymous tips. Such use of public shame disturbs Stephen Baskerville, president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. “It’s a very unhealthy aspect of a whole series of stereotypes … these days about men as being not only deadbeat dads, but wife-beaters and child molesters and abusers generally.” What is worse, said the political scientist, is that this tool “destroys (the) whole system” in English common law of “individual freedom and due process.”
Marriage researcher Walter Schneider of Fathers for Life agrees. Shaming “was used in all totalitarian systems throughout history,” such as in “people’s courts,” which he sees echoed in family courts.
Radical feminists want “to do everything possible to separate fathers from their children, and to penalize them for even wanting to be fathers. The motivating force for all of that … without a doubt, goes back to Marx and Engels and their recipe for re-engineering society, which is ‘destroy the families.’ You’ll be left with individuals that can be moulded and used to reconstruct a greater and better socialist state,” he told The Interim.
Starting with its name, the Ontario government’s new wesbite, goodparentspay.com, has been packaged as a gender-neutral tool used by the Family Responsibility Office to collect money owed to vulnerable children. Yet every one of the parents so far featured as a “defaulting support payor” has been male – partly because those ordered to pay child support are almost exclusively fathers.
“It is estimated that about 95 to 97 per cent of support payors in Ontario are male. That number has not changed appreciably in many years,” confirmed Paul Doig from the FRO’s communications and marketing branch.
According to a 1998 study by Glenn Cheriton of the Men’s Health Network, 93 per cent of non-custodial mothers in Canada paid no child support. Of moms who were ordered to pay, twice as many defaulted as dads. At the same income levels, men were ordered to pay up to 8.5 times what women were ordered.
In contrast to these lopsided conventions, Baskerville does not “think anyone should (have) to pay child support at all, unless they’ve either a) abandoned their children or b) deserted their families through divorce or at bare minimum, agreed to the divorce. I don’t think you should be able to divorce somebody involuntarily who’s done nothing legally wrong and then force him to pay for (your) stealing his own children. … I would also like to see reform in the no-fault divorce laws.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, few family break-ups are attributable to male abandonment. As of the early 1990s, three-quarters of Canadian divorces were initiated by women. According to Schneider, men are “less likely to seek divorce, because that would destroy their self-image as providers and protectors of the family. It would destroy their world; all they’ve sacrificed for would go down the drain.”
A 1999 American study of no-fault divorce by Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen determined that the spouse who expects to be awarded child custody (and its associated support) is the one more likely to initiate divorce. States that have implemented a presumption of joint custody actually saw declines in the divorce rates.
Even after infidelity, the present system of no-fault divorce appears to reward spouses – wives in particular – who break up their families. Baskerville commented, “You could make the case that the courts are encouraging that kind of mother, that kind of parent generally, by effectively bribing her. ‘You want to go out and commit adultery, leave your marriage, we’ll make it lucrative for you.’”
At the same time, the child support system itself has been portrayed as punishing fathers’ fidelity. Up to a threshold of sharing 40 per cent of a child’s time, the more access a non-custodial parent has to his child(ren), the greater the child support owed to the custodial parent. Furthermore, under the 1997 Income Tax Act, child support payments are no longer tax deductible for either the payor or recipient.
“For many men, the child support amounts that are being ordered … are insurmountable” and can even exceed their net pay, says Schneider. In the U.S., the Government Accounting Office found that two-thirds of unpaid child support was explained by the noncustodial parent’s inability to pay. The vast majority of men featured on the Ontario website are labourers and tradesmen.
Columnist David Warren complained in the Feb. 26 Western Standard that, after “voluntarily (parting) with almost everything (he) owned,” he has had half his net income garnished, been “pursued for the rest in additional spousal-support ‘arrears’” and been “driven … into bankruptcy and default of taxes” – even though the children he is ordered to support are now adults. He denounced the harassment and criminalization of men like himself, who are “pauperized, … stripped of the traditional protections of the common law; many driven to suicide.”
Divorce has no impact on the suicide risk for women, but has been found to double the risk for men – perhaps because of the burden of child support. Additionally, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Canadian fathers unable to cope with child support demands are said to have gone into exile, leaving their children behind.
Like the other provinces, Ontario implemented its own version of the 1997 Federal Child Support Guidelines, devised by legal experts and activists in a process that was criticized as unfair to the needs of fathers. Although Parliament managed to reform child support, it has neither implemented nor revisited proposed changes to child access and custody that were studied in the same time period. For parents who can pay the court-ordered amounts, the greatest factor in raising “compliance” is greater opportunity for contact with the children, but the presumption of custody for the mother remains untouched.
Baskerville recommends “the presumption of shared parenting. Joint custody would do a lot to reduce divorce in the first place and obviate the need for child support. If both parents have an equal role in the child’s upbringing, there’s not a need for large transfers of money.”
Facts and figures on goodparentspay.com
A “missing defaulting support payor” becomes a candidate for website profiling if all other means of locating him/her have been unsuccessful; it has been at least six months since (s)he last made a support payment; and the support recipient consents to the posting. To date, no women have been found to meet all three criteria.
On Feb. 19, Ontario became the second province to use a child support website, after Alberta. Numerous American states already use the technique.
For much of the time since its establishment in 1996, the Family Responsibility Office had received negative press coverage for being inefficient and even “callous” in dealing with so-called deadbeat dads. Ontario Ombudsman André Marin’s most recent scathing report was in August 2006. He said that either the “inept” agency must improve or that options like privatization should be considered. As of March 2006, “deadbeat” parents were in default by over $1.3 billion. Marin attributed $200 million in social assistance costs to inadequate child support enforcement.
Website cost and promotion:
$250 for start up, nothing for administration or advertising. The site was built and is being maintained by staff already on FRO salary. Mark Despatie, senior communications adviser to the minister’s office, told The Interim, “The only promotion that we’ve done has been through media, and the response has been overwhelming … In fact, from our reports, it’s been about 100 per cent positive.”
The website is intended to feature a maximum of 25 defaulting support payors at a time. Updates are scheduled for Mondays. These may include adding new profiles or removing profiles that generated no response or feature individuals who have been found. To date, the profiles have all been of men, 17 or 18 at a time.
First month results:
Two men made contact prior to the launch date. Five men have been found through the website: three were found in the first week, two more in the subsequent three weeks. The ministry is unable to verify whether any payments have actually been collected from the “found” individuals.
In the first month, the site received 16.8 million hits and 201 tips from the public. However, 10 million of those hits and over 150 of those tips came just in the first week