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Patricia Gibbs

Deadbeat Dread
Patricia Gibbs
November 19, 1997. Honolulu Weekly

What do you get when you mix failed relationships, children and child support? More trouble, when you don't pay.

Between 12,000 and 18,000 parents, mostly men, in Hawai'i at any one time owe court-ordered child support, but do not pay it, either on a regular basis or at all. The rate for non-compliance in this state and nationwide is 80 percent--that is, only 20 percent of those who owe, pay. Not a great success rate, is it?

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or Welfare Reform Act) required states to write laws that would penalize parents who don't pay their child support. The new tactic that's been settled on for this punishment is license suspension. And we're not just taking drivers' licenses, either; in the near future, parents who don't pay child support could lose their right to practice law, medicine and other professions as well.

In 1997, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1266, and Governor Ben Cayetano signed it into law in Act 293. The new License Suspension Law was passed to encourage parents to take full financial responsibility for their children; it is aimed at people who are non-custodial, non-compliant parents (persons who are not taking financial or other legal responsibilities for their children).

Some of the criticism of the Welfare Reform Act has been focused on its tendency to place responsibility for children on their custodial parents--women, for the most part. At the same time, this "reform" cuts deeply into parents' ability to care for their children, by reducing and often eliminating their ability to qualify for govemrnent assistance. With most estranged, non-child-support paying parents being male, the new law now promises to focus its attention squarely on men behaving badly. According to state Child Support Enforcement Agency representatives, there is no one "profile" of a non-custodial, non-compliant person, althouuh 80 percent to 85 percent of them are male. They come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, class levels and occupations.

Michael Meaney, administrator of the Child Support Enforcement Agency, says, "They run the gamut from those who are unemployed to people who actively hide their money."

Most parents who seek help from the Agency to obtain child support are not even on welfare. Says Heaney, "Our welfare caseload is only 25 percent of all cases; 75 percent, are not on welfare. Here we have seen a real change from 10 years ago, where almost 100 percent of our clients were welfare recipients. Now it's getting more and more difficult to qualify for welfare. Along with that; we've seen a terrific rise in the amount of professionals as non-compliant parents."

How will the License Suspension Law work? It hurts most first in the driver's seat, then in the license to work. Beginning January 1, 1998, the Child Support Enforcement Agency will begin suspending the driver's licenses of those parents who are three months behind with their financial or other legal obligations to their children.

The law also allows the agency to recommend suspension of other licenses--vocational, professional and even recreational--that are issued by the state of Hawai`I, if a person is six months delinquent.

Now, the state licenses a whole host of jobs--a short list of which includes those for practicing lawyers, doctors, CPAs, barbers, hairstylists, masseurs, tour drivers, real estate agents, nurses, medical technologists, architects, travel agents, plumbers, insurance agents, contractors, electricians and many others.

Hawai`i is one of the last states to initiate the law. Some other states have had a similar law for 10 years.

Bob Norton, information specialist with the Child Support Enforcement Agency, says the threat of losing your license or the threat of social censure is a great motivator for a lot of non-compliers. Cases in other states have created much notoriety. "For example," says Norton, "There was one case in Massachusetts where a very expensive Yacht was shown with a 'Confiscated for Failure to Pay Child Support' notice on it. Another very public case in Washington state showed the arrest of a judge for non-compliance on the 6 o' clock news. It can be quite embarrassin- for professionals."

Meany expects that the License Suspension Law may prove to be one of the more efficient laws enacted here. "In the beginning, it should have a very big effect. In the mid-range time," he says, "it may replace a lot of work that other govemment services, such as regular law enforcement, does now. It will become quite evident that it's just not worth it not to pay."

What conditions have kept non-compliance rates so high? First, the divorce rate is now 50 percent--a rate that equates to a rise in the numbers of non-custodial parents (again, mostly men). Second, the economic realities of the modern era have resulted in much job turnover, forcing many to relocate - and making it more likely that child support will fall behind, and perhaps be left behind. Studies show that after divorce the non-custodial parent's standard of living typically rises, while the parents who keep the children experience downward mobitity. There's an economic incentive in becoming a deadbeat, and some parents hide their assets or contest payments by foot-dragging in court.

Hawai'i has a very high rate of private vehicle registration--some estimate that there are more cars on the road here per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Hitting non-compliant parents in the driver's seat may be more meaningful here, too. However, Meaney says, "From the official perspective, the goal is not to suspend anyone's license. The real goal is to encourage people to accept responsibility for their children."

Does it defeat the purpose to take someone's ability to do their jobs (and make money) away from them in the expectation that that will encourage them to pay up? Meaney responds, "First, if they're working now and still not paying, then this is a good enough deterrent to them to make them rethink paying. And second, people in traditional families suffer job loss and they find a way. This way, everyone else is paying the price for the non-compliant person. Many people don't realize that if you aren't paying for your responsibilities, the rest of your community is."

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