I met Mr. A for the first time at the D.C. Superior Court. He had come to the Child Support Community Legal Services Project seeking help to reduce his child support order for his three grown children. In the early nineties, he had been ordered to pay about $700 per month in child support. For 18 years of his adult life, however, he was in jail and unable to pay child support. He was facing tens of thousands of dollars in arrears. After he was released from jail, Mr. A did manage to find work and make payments as best as he could, but he was eventually laid off from his job. He now lived in a shelter and was in an intensive drug rehab program, with the hope of getting back on his feet one day.
For the past seven months, lawyers from Legal Aid, Bread for the City, and other community partners have staffed the Child Support Community Legal Services Project, also known as the Child Support Resource Center. Most litigants that appear for hearings in the Paternity and Support branch are pro se. Many have little to no experience with the legal system and are often unaware of their rights or of legal procedure. Four days a week, project attorneys provide legal information, advice, and same-day representation on a variety of child support and paternity issues. Our services are free and open to both custodial and non-custodial parents, moms and dads, and even third-party caregivers.
Many of the clients that have been served by the Resource Center are non-custodial fathers like Mr. A who have not paid child support in quite awhile and have amassed thousands of dollars in arrears. Many people would call these men “dead-beat dads” and question whether they deserve legal assistance, but this characterization fails to recognize the circumstances that have led many of these non-custodial parents to have become as indebted as they are. The Project does not provide legal assistance to parents who seek to avoid their responsibilities towards their children. We do, however, understand that the existence of arrears on a parent’s balance sheet does not necessarily mean that the parent has purposefully evaded his or her child support obligation.
While we all acknowledge the sluggish economy, and the impact that it has had on everyday workers, recent numbers reveal just how dire our country’s economic situation really is. According to the Census Bureau, nearly half of all Americans now live at or near the poverty line. Sixteen percent of Americans now live below the poverty line, and one-third earn incomes between 100% and 199% of the poverty level. These new figures take into account medical bills, child care expenses, and taxes to provide a more accurate picture of Americans’ economic health. And the picture is crystal clear: too many Americans are out of work, wages are stagnant or decreasing, and the costs of essentials such as housing and utilities have remained the same or increased.
We see the impact of this perfect storm at the courthouse each day. Fathers who paid child support consistently each month were suddenly laid off and have been unable to find work for years. Fathers with criminal records find it nearly impossible to get a job interview, and watch as their arrears accrue. Those fortunate enough to find part-time work have to rely on the generosity of friends and family to make up the difference. Most parents want to provide for their children, but it has been more difficult than ever for parents to meet their responsibilities. At the Resource Center, we provide legal assistance to moms and dads who have had the most trouble weathering the current economic storm. In Mr. A’s case, Legal Aid was able to temporarily reduce his child support order to $0 per month. This will help ensure that he won’t face contempt charges while he is in his drug program and give him an opportunity to look for work. It is always our goal to help clients reach fair and accurate child support orders—orders that non-custodial parents can realistically pay and that will contribute towards the well-being of the District’s children.