By Mark David Blum, Esq.
A scab was picked this week by a Family Court Support Magistrate who concluded that a man was in “willful” violation of his child support obligations. In my argument to the Family Court Judge whose responsibility is to mete out a sentence, I explained that if the Support Magistrate would come down off her Bench and spend a few days on South Salina and Brighton Ave, she would see rampant unemployment, no transportation or local employers, and few if any businesses are willing to interview young Black males.
I then began to tell the tale of the Lawnmower Man. Seen every day during the Springtime, Summer, and early Fall, he is my testament to the unquenchable human spirit to succeed. Imagine a typical Syracuse summer day where the air is heavy with moisture and the temperatures are hovering in the 80’s. You are sitting on a porch down on the Southside of Syracuse kickin’ back on a Friday after a long hard week. As you unwind, up the street a man comes walking behind a gasoline engine push mower. He is about 40 something and is lean and sweating profusely. Pushing that mower up the hill is no easy chore. Try doing it on a hot day.
One day I stopped the lawnmower man and asked why he pushed his mower around. He said he did landscaping to feed his family. I asked why he was pushing his mower around instead of getting a truck. He said it was because he had no drivers license and so he could only work those properties in an area that his legs alone can transport him. Up the hill he went marching off to his next job.
The next time I saw him, I approached again and asked some more questions. Most curiously to me was what happened to his license? I have volunteered to resolve a lot of traffic and other problems for poor folks to enable them to get back on their feet, to stop hiding, and to move forward. What issue could be so severe that even I couldn’t help this man? Child support.
Hearken ye back to the 1980’ and 1990’s and the era of the metrosexual Democrat male and the paternalistic controlling Republican male. Every candidate for office wanted women to support them and they banged the drum and sounded the alarm. “Get the Dead Beat Dads!” One after another, law after law was enacted to give legislators the appearance of solving a social problem. The blowback has been the destruction of the family, creation of deeper debt and suffering, and building insurmountable roadblocks to getting beyond the present.
Let us look at lawnmower man’s situation: He had a child with a woman. Whatever may be your morality about cause, responsibility, and burden, the end result is that society had to deal with a child born out of wedlock in need of public assistance. In my opinion, the woman is the last line of defense of her own uterus and is thus ultimately responsible for what happens therein. But, thankfully we have in place a bare bones safety net to catch the most desperate and weak among us.
At the same time, we have also built a massive government machine that hates to spend money on poor people. It begrudgingly does so because the alternative is the poor living in our own yards. So, on arguments about balancing budgets and keeping the family together, legislators at all levels began the crusade. Make the Dads pay. Go get the Dads.
The rules now say that a parent’s income is not a factor taken into consideration for custody. Clearly, this came about because there used to be significant disparity between men and women and their respective earning capacity. Supposedly, this was to bring balance. What it brought was a system heavily tilted in favor of mothers. But, judges were trying to be fair and not give one side a lopsided windfall and so child support numbers were all over the chart. Our brilliant state legislators changed that by setting statistical contributions that most times cannot be changed. Non custodial parents here in New York get their clocks cleaned by paying non deductable income which becomes a tax free windfall for the custodial parent.
Fathers tried to retaliate. They quit their jobs to drop their income. Legislators and the Courts responded by essentially saying “too bad your income dropped.” Unless it is shown the drop in income is not your fault and that you made herculean efforts to replace the income, you are still obligated for the full statistical amount from your previously determined obligation. I personally recall one situation where a weekly support Order was entered for my client where her ex husband was required to pay her more in weekly support than he was making in gross income.
From the father’s perspective, the entire process seems built to tear you and your children apart. Visitation is predicated upon payment of support. It matters not if the father is sleeping in a garage, so long as the support payments are made, the system prrrs along nicely. Many father has opted out and run, changed identities, disappeared, or gave up their efforts. It is bad enough to have a lifetime running battle with the child’s mother. Add onto that the crushing power of the system and it can be overwhelming.
So lawnmower man confesses he had a child out of wedlock and owes child support. The child and child’s mother are on support, Medicaid, and public assistance. We taxpayers are feeding and housing this child. The father cannot reside in the house or the mother and child could lose their benefits. Because the taxpayers are involved, all the power of the State is also involved. The state, by and through the County Attorney, will proceed against a father of a child on public assistance. Originally the laudable goal was to recoup some of the public investment. But, with statutory mandated amounts, the courts have little wiggle room. Pressure by the Counties builds and ultimately a child support amount is determined.
Two things happen when the dollar amount is determined. First, the amount is retroactive to the date the petition was filed. Imagine being several thousand dollars in arrears on the day your support amount is determined. This happens more than you know. Nothing changes until a judge says so; no matter how wrong may be the original determination.
Secondly, the County’s Child Support Collection Unit fires up its engines and begins to grind away. They are the new lords and masters of the life of the garnishee. Every year they will make their own upward adjustments to the child support without your having any say in the matter.
What if you cannot pay the support? What if you fall behind? Fret not, for they are a zealous lot at the CSCU and will dutifully get their dollars. Though less overbearing than even the most aggressive collection agencies, the Support Collection unit has powers and tools not available to the public. The Unit can lien a paycheck beyond normal collection amounts. Contempt proceedings can be filed. People can end up on probation or jailed. Property can be seized. Bank accounts can be emptied without notice.
Yes, fall far enough behind in your child support and you can lose licenses. I could lose my license to practice law. You could lose your license own a gun or boat or a business. Passports and tax returns will never see your hands. There are some jobs that require employees must be current on support or they will be unemployed.
Lawnmower man lost his license to drive. Month after month, the support arrears piles up and month after month lawnmower man falls further and farther behind. Without that license, any chance he has of expanding his business or finding a living wage enabling him to pay support simply doesn’t exist. Courts are powerless by law to make ‘arrears’ go away and no County Executive is going to wave a magic wand of forgiveness.
And so, like so many others, lawnmower man continues about his Sisyphusian task: Pushing that gas powered lawnmower up and down the streets he can walk. I am proud of him for not surrendering. At the same time, I feel ashamed of my government for putting one of its own in such a situation with no way out. Whatever may be self inflicted, everybody in our culture gets a do-over and a chance at redemption.
But not lawnmower man: For him there is no redemption. Just work and rest await him until one day he just dies. That will be the moment when the county can come along and squeeze the last droplets of blood from his rotting broken corpse.