On Child Support, and All Things With It

Sir, that child didn’t ask to be born.  You made the child, and now you will take care of the child, because it’s the right thing to do and the State says you must.

Let’s talk about the process of child support in Tennessee.  There’s a dearth of discussion materials for this topic, but I want to discuss it from the perspective of a parent who is in the system, one who has obligations, and one who must pay out a certain sum per month or face consequences.

When you have a child, you are responsible for that life.  You must feed it, clothe it, take care of it, and make sure it has food/water/air and any other amenities necessary.  This is right and good, and the State of Tennessee has certain regulations in play dealing with the support of children.

If parents are not married, the Child Support System kicks in.  If you are an unwed father or mother, and the other parent assumes primary residential status, then that parent has the ability to petition for child support.  If you are married and divorce your spouse, then child support automatically kicks in as part of the divorce process through the completion of the TCES worksheet.  This is a mathematical algorithm that takes into account each parent’s income, expenses, and the living situation of the child and spits out a number.  That number is your Child Support Payment, and you MUST make it according to the arrangements provided by the Courts or by agreement.

Every time I think of the Child Support Worksheet, I get a feeling of revulsion.  It has nothing to do with the fact that I really don’t like dealing with numbers.  It’s the absurdity of putting all your faith in The System, and accepting The System’s word as gospel.  You see, once the number is calculated by the almighty computers of the mediator or the State’s Child Support Attorneys, there is no change in the amount.  You cannot and will not deviate from that, absent a clearly proven fifteen percent change in your income.  The whole mess reminds me of a cancelled show called “Better Off Ted,” in which a corporate executive deleted from his company’s computer network must take extreme steps to regain his identity because the System doesn’t make mistakes, and everyone in the company (save our hapless executive Ted) trusts the System absolutely. Eventually Ted manages to make his way back into the System, but not before a series of antics that hit the mark in defining “comedically ridiculous.”

So you have your number. You must pay that number. Even with the poverty rates soaring in Tennessee, you will pay that or you will suffer consequences. These consequences start with you losing your driver license and range as far as incarceration for failure to pay. Let’s examine the absolute absurdity of this. First, if you do not have the ability to pay the number the System says is appropriate, you lose your driver license. This effectively hampers your ability to get to work, which means that you are more than likely to lose your job. Certain major cities do have public transportation options, but even in metropolitan areas like Knoxville those routes are limited, meaning those who avail themselves of public transport must “hoof it” before they get to their chosen destination. Rural communities, such as the one in which I lived for most of my life in Northeast Tennessee, don’t even have that as an option–further adding to the debt of the person who can’t live up to the System.

If you cannot get to your job, and you cannot get the System the timely payments it requires, you can and will eventually be incarcerated for your failure to pay. Knox County’s “child support courts” are full of individuals who cannot pay the System’s amount for some particular reason, and therefore are jailed. In jailing the person who fails to pay, the State is essentially telling the non-paying party “I see you are not paying enough money to support your child. As a result of your failure to pay, we will now place you in an environment where you are a burden on the taxpayer and have no ability to earn money to directly support your child.”

This environment then breeds resentment in a person who cannot pay the extreme amounts computed often by the System. They are deprived of their liberty and their sense of self-worth, all because they could not make the number the System told them to make.  They certainly can’t get a job in jail–there’s no employment office, no environment in which one can work save through a State Penal Work program, nothing that can help the person rehabilitate themselves and find a better job.  Amazingly, some inmates do seem to have an “inside track” to which temp staffing agencies are hiring and give prisoners a chance to get out.  These are the interesting cases, ones in which people are reduced to menial labor at wages that are certainly unlivable and often paid out in ATM machines with a “scrip” like paper receipt for cash on hand.  I’ve seen instances of these “staffing solution” agencies in Knox County, and it makes me think of the coal mining days and the line “I sold my soul to the company store” in the song “Sixteen Tons.”  How often are we having people sell themselves to the company store for the sole privilege of staying free?

Further adding to the insanity of Tennessee’s Child Support System is the state’s policies on incarcerated mothers and fathers.  Keep in mind that when a party is on the hook for child support, they can stay on the hook while in jail.  If a party is incarcerated in Tennessee, that is not seen as a set of circumstances precluding payment of future child support obligations.  It is not a defense that you cannot pay while in jail, and your accumulated debt will continue to skyrocket as long as you remain behind bars.  When you leave jail or prison, you already have another “debt to society” that you must pay–the child support owed while you were paying your other “debt to society.”  This debt–the costs of child care–could land you right back in the clink as soon as you get out!  It’s called “Failure to abide by a court order,” and this is the biggest reason people with prior convictions end up in the slammer again over child support.  Tennessee is essentially trapping people into a system where they cannot pay, and as a result they are guests of the State’s penal institutions for life.

I mention all of this today as it is a topic stewing on my brain for some time.  The system needs a massive overhaul, and quickly so we reduce the amount of time these non-violent offenses keep people in Tennessee jails and prisons.  I am unsure how to do it, and I cannot say that I could come up with a sensible solution…but Tennessee’s lawmakers need to stop patting themselves on the back for finally passing convoluted legislation getting wine in grocery stores and figure out some fix to the broken System shutting thousands of Tennesseans out of gainful employment and into the electronic plantation that is child support default.

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