As non-custodial parents owe millions of dollars in missed child support payments, it puts some single parents and their children at risk of poverty.
When a romantic relationship ends, it can be difficult to sort out things like money, homes and children. Research also suggests that "staying together for the kids" is likely the wrong decision. And while some might suggest that single parents receive too much child support, statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau — and some local community members — tell a different story.
The last 14 years have been a hassle for one D.C. custodial parent who says she's been engaged in a tug-of-war ever since a messy divorce and child support order were finalized in 2006. The woman shared her story with WAMU under the condition of anonymity so that she could freely discuss a family court matter.
"I honestly wish I never went through the process," the woman wrote in a message to WAMU on Reddit.
She's not alone.
Surviving On Unpaid Child Support
Non-custodial parents across the country owed more than $114.6 billion in child support debt in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The most recent Census Bureau data shows that only 43.5% of custodial parents received full payment of child support due in 2015. And last year in the District, 32% of custodial parents received partial or no child support payments.
The parent who spoke to WAMU said she was supposed to receive $675 each month for the child she cares for with her ex-husband. Meanwhile, the court ordered her to take care of medical insurance and other child care costs.
For the first year, she said, child support payments were issued to the woman because the non-custodial parent's wages were garnished. But after he claimed the amount was too high, she said, the payment collection became spotty. Eventually, monthly payments were lowered to $175, putting the custodial household in more financial strain.
"The system is not a help to [neither] custodial parents nor non-custodial," the woman said. "It's very hard to get any staff to review or modify a case, and when they do, it takes over six months to a year just to get that settled."
Applying The Pressure: Child Support Resources
D.C.'s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) enforces child support payments for the District's 26,180 custodial parents with child support cases. Officials say there is some recourse besides wage garnishments when a non-custodial parent falls behind on their payments.
"The first thing that we would do is, of course, try to reach out [to non-custodial parents]. And the second thing is that, per District law, their driver's license may be able to be suspended," said Starr Granby-Collins, chief of the Policy, Training & Administrative Affairs section in OAG's Child Support Services division.
"A lot of times that pushes people to come and speak with us. But also, if they get a tax refund, by federal law the taxes can be intercepted," Granby-Collins says.
But rent, bills and hungry bellies don't go away. And the problem of unpaid child support is more exacerbated in a place like the Washington region where child care is expensive and costs continue to rise.
Child care costs in Montgomery County are among the highest in Maryland, according to the Maryland Family Network. And across the region, costs are similarly high. In D.C. the estimated child care cost for an infant in a family child care home and a preschooler in a child care center is $35,394, according to Child Care Aware of America. In Arlington, Virginia the cost is $33,817.
Nationally, more than 70% of single mothers do not receive any child support at all, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And around 34% of those families headed by unmarried mothers live in poverty — a rate that is almost five times that of married couples. Despite there being somewhat higher economic gains, women's poverty rates have stayed virtually the same over the previous year and continue to be above the poverty rate for men. According to Granby-Collins, 8,550 parents in the District's child support system currently receive Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance to families with children experiencing poverty.
"Our average order of support in D.C. is about $250 per month and studies have shown that this amount, although it doesn't seem like a lot to us, it literally lifts children out of poverty," says Granby-Collins.
Support For Custodial And Non-Custodial Parents
OAG's child support division connects custodial parents who need support to programs offered through the District's Department of Human Services to help them obtain food assistance, housing, job training, child care and health care coverage.
Each year, Granby-Collins says, the department also distributes backpacks and school supplies to custodial parents who need them for their children.
"We want to make sure that every child in the District is able to do well," says Granby-Collins.
When child support payments are inconsistent, the department looks to find the root cause of the problem, she says. It also looks at why the non-custodial parent might be experiencing financial hardship and whether it can be attributed to factors like unemployment, incarceration and mental health issues. That's why their first approach is to keep the lines of communication open, Granby-Collins says.
"We have a job program here, where we have two specialists and their job is to help non-custodial parents find jobs and they help them with soft skills because we know that they want to support the children," adds Granby-Collins.
"That's honestly what we really see here in D.C., it's that non-custodial parents want to support the children and when they can't it's because most of the time there's some sort of barrier."
But these efforts don't change the fact that children can benefit immensely when they have support from both parents.
Millions of children experiencing poverty are missing out on opportunities for better education, less stress and a better quality of life, which will affect them for generations to come. According to a 2009 report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, while those who grow up in poverty can break out of an intergenerational cycle, it is less likely to happen than common perception would suggest. And even when they are able to do so, their income is often only marginally higher than that of the previous generation.
And because less than half of custodial parents in D.C. received full child support payments in 2019, Granby-Collins says her team is working to help change that narrative for minors at the center of the struggle.
"We fight for children, but we also have to do a real-world approach and a real-world application," she says.