Arizona falls short paying child support, evaders owe nearly $2 billion

 

Over $500,000 has been collected in child support since Gov. Ducey’s initiative began, but $1.73 billion remains unpaid. Data provided by the Department of Economic Security. (Graphic by: Allison Suarez/ Arizona Sonora News)

Arizona has the fifth-highest percentage of unpaid child support cases in the U.S., according to the most recent data from fiscal year 2016 from the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

In fiscal year 2016, 64 percent of child support cases in Arizona were not being paid. The state with the highest proportion of unpaid cases was Hawaii at 69 percent, followed by Louisiana, Delaware and Rhode Island. The state with the lowest proportion of unpaid cases was Pennsylvania at 54 percent.

Yet the average cost of raising a child through the age of 17 in the U.S. increased to about $233,610 per year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

As of February 2018, the Arizona Department of Economic Security had 167 known child support evaders posted on its “wanted” list. Collectively, these missing evaders owe nearly $10 million in child support payments.

Not all child support evaders in the state are listed on the “wanted” page. In total, more than 142,000 parents in Arizona owe $1.73 billion collectively in child support payments.

For parents to be listed on the “wanted” page of the DES website, they must meet the following criteria: Owe more than $5,000 in child support; be missing; show disregard for responsibilities; have not made any payments in the last six months; not involved in bankruptcy; and not receiving welfare benefits.

The evader who owed the most money, as of February 2018 on the state’s wanted list, was 56-year-old James Martin Mitchell. He owes more than $300,000 in child support payments and his payments would be going to three children. His last known location was Phoenix.

Only 44 percent of custodial parents, parents who have legal custody of a child, reported receiving the full amount of child support payment due from a noncustodial parent in the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 25 percent of custodial parents reported receiving partial payments.

For the 1.6 million custodial parents with incomes lower than poverty level at the time of the report, 39 percent reported receiving full child support payments from the noncustodial parent.

As of 2016, 4 in 5 custodial parents were mothers, while 1 in 5 custodial parents were fathers, and the mothers were more likely to be responsible for two or more children than fathers.

Broken Promises

Selena and her former boyfriend’s relationship seemed promising in the beginning; they met at a mutual job in Tucson. Then Selena found out she was pregnant, and everything changed.

Selena requested her real name not be printed because the noncustodial father of her child might threaten to stop paying his child support payments if identities are revealed. She said she had to battle the father for child support payments constantly at the beginning of their son’s life.

When the father found out she was pregnant, she said he was mean. “He rebelled against me and I felt like, obviously he did that because he wanted me to abort, but I wasn’t going to. He actually left me and then started dating someone else. And he actually ended up doing the same thing to the other girl.”

The father moved onto a nearby Native American reservation and was able to avoid punishment for missing child support payments because of the muddled jurisdiction lines between reservation courts and Pima County courts, according to Selena.

Selena had to return to the court system for garnishment orders, the demand that her due child support payments be taken out of the father’s paychecks. Now, she receives about $200 every two weeks from the father – money that she saves in her son’s savings account for school and sports programs, like baseball.

The biological father of Selena’s son spends more time with the children from his second family, according to Selena, and she said sometimes her son will start thinking, “Why me? Why doesn’t my dad see me?”

“I have to explain to him that not all people take care of the responsibilities that they’re supposed to,” she said. “I don’t talk about his dad. When I do talk about his dad, I don’t bash his dad. I don’t think that’s right either.”

While she has had plenty of practice with these types of conversations, Selena said it still “breaks her heart” to explain to her son why his biological father has been detached from his life, but not from his other kids’.

“If you have a kid, they’re your seed,” she said. “So how are you going to go to one kid and not to another? I just don’t see that.”

Selena’s long-term significant other has been a constant presence and male role model in her son’s life. However, she said she thinks her son’s biological father’s lack of involvement has made a noticeable difference in her son’s emotional health at times.

“It does have a big effect on the children,” she said. “It does make a difference with their little hearts.” 

Facing the Consequences

 The punishment for child support evasion depends on a number of factors.

According to the Department of Justice, it is a misdemeanor to purposely fail to pay for the child support of a child who lives in another state or if the payment has been due for over one year or exceeds $5,000. A convicted offender could face fines and up to six months in prison.

If the payment is overdue for more than two years or the amount exceeds $10,000, evasion is a felony. Convicted offenders face fines and up to two years in prison.

Any individual who was found trying to cross state lines, or flee the country to avoid payment, also faces up to two years in prison.

However, in other circumstances, child support enforcement falls under state jurisdiction, not federal. The state can employ a variety of enforcement methods for convicted evaders on a case-by-case basis. Some examples of these actions are seizing assets, putting liens on property, passport denial, referral to court and, of course, referral for prosecution in state or federal courts.

If DES finds evidence that evaders have the ability to pay and have not, warrants are made for their arrests and review hearings are scheduled to monitor the cases afterward. A small group of staff is assigned to child support evaders, according to the state department.

In many cases, according to DES, an arrested evader will have to pay a portion of the child support owed in cash to get out of jail. This is known as a purge payment. In some cases, warrants might be voided, but the case will still be monitored in the future.

In “Your Arizona Divorce Book,” family law attorney Douglas Gardner writes about the primary factors that decide child support amounts: the incomes of both parents and the amount of time that children spend with each parent.

Myth Busters: Terminology, Race and the Types of Support

Terminology

The term “deadbeat” is not a term used in formal research, according to Melissa Barnett, a University of Arizona professor in family studies and human development, because it does not capture the complexities behind child support cases.

In comparison to parents who cannot pay child support for legitimate reasons, she believes those who are financially able to pay child support and choose not to comprise the minority of child support evaders.

The book, “Marriages and Families in the 21st Century,” by psychologist Tasha Howe analyzes “deadbeat” parents from a biological and ecological approach. It argues many “deadbeat dads” may need job training, help with court costs, or other assistance before they will be able to pay child support.

Race

In 2015, Charles Blow wrote a New York Times piece on how and why there are inaccurate stereotypes that black fathers are more prone to be “deadbeats.” As he explains, an armory of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics reveal the truth behind misconceptions of race and fatherhood.

According to an NCHS report, black fathers were more likely to take their children to and from activities, help their kids with homework, eat a meal with children they do not live with, and to bathe, dress or diaper their kids than fathers of other races.

Blow writes that the disproportionate mass incarceration of black men in the U.S. may be one reason for this misconception about black fatherhood.

Simply put, Blow writes: “While it is true that black parents are less likely to marry before a child is born, it is not true that black fathers suffer a pathology of neglect.”

Types of Support

Many experts say the issue of absentee parents is not as simple as it might seem at surface level. A 2015 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family reports that fathers who are unable to pay child support can still contribute to their child’s well-being in a variety of other ways.

The study states that almost half of the noncustodial fathers who were too cash-poor for court-ordered payments still could buy smaller gifts like baby products and school supplies to help the mother.

The study analyzed 367 lower-income, noncustodial fathers, but 66 of them were considered “full deadbeat” – contributing zero cash support to their children. However, the researchers found that these “full deadbeat” fathers did contribute about $60 per month in support through gifts or other informal contributions that don’t show up in court statistics.

Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau found that about 60 percent of custodial parents received some form of non-cash support from noncustodial parents, and about 39 percent of noncustodial parents provided some health insurance benefits to their children.

The report found that the most common types of non-cash support from noncustodial parents are birthday gifts or gifts for other occasions, clothes, food or groceries, medical expenses, and child care or summer camp payments.

“We still know that parents can play really active roles in their children’s lives even when they aren’t in that household,” Barnett said. “With technology, increasingly there are ways – affordable ways – for parents and children to maintain contact, even over long distance.”

The Psychology of Parenting after Divorce

Generally, children raised by single mothers can be more socially, developmentally or academically disadvantaged than children raised in two-parent homes, according to Barnett. However, she also said this can have more to do with having less money as a single-income family than an absent father figure.

The idea that all kids from single-mother homes struggle is an inaccurate stereotype, as is the idea that a single mother is a sole caregiver for a child, according to Barnett. In reality, many families have support systems from grandparents, other relatives or new partners.

After a divorce, parents’ psychological processes can be affected too. In the book, Howe writes that men can lose their sense of identity or masculinity after a divorce, and not paying child support may be one way they can attempt to maintain a sense of control over the situation.

State Efforts

Gov. Doug Ducey launched a public-shaming initiative in partnership with DES in 2016 to start tweeting out images and names of suspected “deadbeat” parents evading child support. The use of social media increases the number of tips DES receives about a parent’s whereabouts, according to the department.

According to DES, 110 parents have been located since this campaign started, and the Division of Child Support Services has seen an increase in payments from parents who were previously not paying.

The public shaming technique works in some cases of child support evaders, but not all, according to Gardner. In some cases, for example, he said, evaders might completely lack the money to pay, so shaming them will not make a difference.

He said no one program is going to solve the whole problem, but the Twitter campaign is “one more arrow in the arsenal” to help locate parents.

David Hamu, a member of the volunteer-run Arizona Fathers’ Rights organization, called the term deadbeat a “non-sequitur term,” and said a lot of so-called deadbeat parents are just “dead broke.”

Helping Hands for Single Moms, an organization that assists single mothers pursuing a college education, has locations in Phoenix and Tucson. In 2015, its first year, the Tucson branch distributed $42,000 in scholarships to single-mother college students. The participants receiving the scholarships had an 89 percent graduation rate and a combined 3.46 average grade point average. In the past couple of years, 19 women have graduated with 22 degrees, according to Lia Pierse, the self-sufficiency director.

The Tucson branch, now a program called Single Mom Scholars under Interfaith Community Services, has found that high-quality, affordable childcare is the top barrier to completing a college degree.

Pierse said the goal is to help single mothers eliminate day-to-day obstacles that come with the territory of raising a child and pursuing a degree simultaneously. More than financial assistance is offered; mothers also get access to services and necessities such as car repairs, dental care, feminine care products, professional attire and access to laptops and other technology.

Moving Forward

Since DES expanded the Most Wanted Child Support Evader initiative, more than $535,000 has been collected in past-due child support payment. In the first two months of this year so far, about $13,000 in child support has been collected.

For any parents who can empathize with her situation regarding child support, Selena offers this advice.

“Your kids should mean everything to you,” she said. “Never give up on that situation.”

Jessica Suriano and Allison Suarez are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at jessicasuriano@email.arizona.edu and allisonsuarez@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution images of the graphics. 

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