Before changing abortion laws, improve state’s child support system

It’s astounding the steps and resources the government must expend to force noncustodial parents — almost always fathers – to do right by their children. I saw that up close when I rode along with sheriff’s deputies and police officers hunting down scofflaws.

The debtors were frequently tens of thousands of dollars behind in payments.

Stakeouts, admonishments by deputies, and handcuffs were common that day in 2011. Jail was a possibility, but judges were often loath to leave dads behind bars if it prevented them from paying up. That would harm their offspring even more.

I was reminded about that reporting as Virginia begins sorting out what a post-Roe v. Wade society will become. Last month’s anti-abortion, anti-privacy, anti-women ruling by the US Supreme Court overturned a half-century-old constitutional right.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, wants to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Democrats and abortion rights supporters pledged to fight back. The guv told conservative activists last week he wants to go even further if Republicans hold onto the House of Delegates and flip the state Senate in the 2023 elections.

Republicans now hold a slight majority in the House, 52-48. Democrats have an even narrower edge in the Senate, 21-19; the Republican lieutenant governor, Winsome Earle-Sears, would break tie votes in that chamber.

Fewer abortions will mean more children. Those infants will face a challenging future if both parents aren’t committed to their well-being and growth.

Youngkin, while trumpeting the chance to “happy and gleefully” sign any bill “in order to protect life,” must prove he also cares about children long out of the womb — when the stresses and costs of raising them become all too real for parents.

This issue will become even more critical if more women are forced to bring their pregnancies to term.

Here’s why this is important: Some 20 percent of children nationwide receive child support, federal officials say. Child support, when paid, nearly doubles the average income of recipients below the poverty line.

I spent several days interviewing a state legislator, Youngkin administration officials and a family and child welfare attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center about the commonwealth’s child support system. I also reviewed recent news articles.

Among the most notable points is the whopping amount of arrears that noncustodial parents in Virginia owe – and the fact that annual arrearages have gone basically unchanged since at least 2013. The cumulative total was $3.15 billion at the end of most recent federal fiscal year; the amount has accumulated for decades.

Some caveats:

Not all the outstanding child support owed is due to the custodial parent. The state collects some funding in return for public money it pays for programs, said Valerie L’Herrou, staff attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. They include foster care and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Officials put the debt owed the state at 13 percent, and the portion owed to custodial parents at 87 percent.

The $3 billion-plus isn’t an annual amount, of course. The unpaid support was $239 million for the 2021 federal fiscal year. The state’s Division of Child Support Enforcement collected more than $650 million in child support that year. (The older that arrests get, the feds saythe less likely officials will collect them.)

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, sits on an advisory group that reviews child support guidelines. Among the challenges in collecting debts, he told me, is the lack of money and jobs for some parents.

“You can’t get blood from a stone,” Surowell said. “Typically, yes, they’re poor.”

That doesn’t mean every debtor is without fault. Attorney L’Herrou, by email, relayed anecdotes of fathers who changed jobs frequently or got paid “under the table,” making it difficult to track their wages.

“Also, many fathers act violently or retributively when they receive a summons for child support,” she added. “So many women avoid filing, or avoid seeking enforcement, for fear of the impact on themselves and/or children.”

When I rode with the Chesapeake deputies a decade ago, they told me one guy owed nearly $185,000 for at least six children. Some of his children had become adults by then.

The state assists parents to lower barriers to employment and promotes “positive engagement with their family and children,” Barbara Lacina, director of the state’s Division of Child Support Enforcement, said through a spokeswoman.

Those services include helping with jobs, education, training and housing.

The agency also participates in a program to “provide more cost-effective enforcement alternatives to incarceration, maximize the potential for consistent child support payments by breaking the cycle of noncompliance, reduce jail overcrowding, and promote the involvement of noncustodial parents in their children’s lives, ” Lacina said.

If employment and income aren’t readily available from the noncustodial parent, officials can find other ways to get support payments. This includes taking state and federal refunds, seeking orders to withdraw money from bank accounts and taking parts of lottery winnings.

Still, the amount of uncollected child support is virtually the same every year, officials said — within a range of $240 million to $250 million over a recent five-year period.

What will the governor do about the issue? “The governor’s health and human resources secretary is currently evaluating the best approaches to collect child support and strengthen families,” said Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s spokeswoman.

I’m curious to see if something that hasn’t been done previously will be implemented. Maybe all the best practices have already been tried. We know millions of dollars, every year, aren’t getting to the children and families who need the money.

Surowell told me the division clearly needs more resources: “Most people who know would agree DCSE is not funded alone.”

The state needs to make this a greater priority before it changes abortion laws.

Because if you want to reduce abortion, you also should bolster families — including our system of child support.

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