Seventeen years ago I swore on my wife’s grave that I would keep our family together and watch our two baby boys graduate high school as good men.
It sure hasn't been a walk in the park, I'll say that. You could have searched the globe and not found a fellow more unsuited or unprepared to be a single father than I. Anyone who has raised a child knows it is a road packed full of potholes, detours and unexpected obstacles. And I’ve seen a few of those. But oddly enough, the single greatest obstacle I have faced in raising my family has been the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Child Support Division. For it seems I'm a Deadbeat Daddy.
In the summer of 1990 I was unexpectedly blessed with a third, and God willing final, son. His mother and I weren't married. And we didn't live together or even really want to. Too darn many kids, what with her two and my two — and one in the oven. So we decided that whatever happened between us we would raise our child jointly. Half the week at my house and the other half at hers. Sharing the joys, ulcers and expense of child rearing. We live close enough to pull it off, and it has been working out well for more than ten years now, And while she and I split up several years back, we have remained a family. My kids are at her house a lot, hers are at mine, we are all together on holidays and we are in contact with each other almost daily. Not your average family, that’s for darn sure. But not that terribly unusual either these days, especially here on the Mendocino coast.
The problems started because she was collecting AFDC benefits. And who can blame her? Regardless of what smiling anchormen might tell you, these are brutal times for working parents and their families. Wages are criminally low, rent criminally high and the government somehow snags 50¢ of every dollar you make. If you are cleaning rooms part-time with two or three kids at home, you'll take any help you can get.
I wasn't doing much better myself. I'm a truck driver by trade, but I had no year-round gig. I could often run some produce in the spring, work in the woods during the summer and haul a little crab in the winter. And in between I would make firewood or unload trucks or cut brush. Whatever it took to keep the landlord happy, the sitter paid and the boys fed. I was either working more than any man should have to work, or I wasn't working at all. So I ended up standing in line at the Food Bank more times than I care to remember.
When my youngest son was two, I discovered in a very unusual roundabout fashion that he was suing me for back child support, He pleaded ignorance when confronted with this fact. So I called the District Attorney’s office in Ukiah.
I had never heard of the DB's Child Support Division before this. I had filled out the welfare paperwork when my son was born, expecting that I might be called to verify our custody arrangement. But I never heard a peep. Not so much as a phone call or postcard. And now I owed the County thousands of dollars in unpaid child support? I figured it was a mix-up that I could soon straighten out. But I was very much mistaken.
Apparently this case had already been in the court system for over a year. And the system operated so smoothly that my presence or input wasn't necessary, and I didn't even have to be notified until after my paychecks started disappearing into the void.
I made a few phone calls and wrote letters and filled out financial statements. I repeated to anyone who would listen that I had my son half the time and another two full-time and, financially speaking, I was sucking air. And their response was: always: We want more money and we want it now. I finally managed to set a date to have this whole mess heard in court. I was thinking that a judge could slash his way out of this bureaucratic jungle and set us on the right path. Those were naive days.
I took a day off work, drove to Ukiah, sat in court all day and got a parking ticket. And when I finally stood in front of the judge, he immediately told me to go out in the hallway with the guy from the DA's office and work out a payment plan. This hung me up so much that I just said OK and stepped out the door.
I talked with that lad until I was out of breath. And I got nowhere. I was caught in The Machine and, like a riptide, I couldn't fight it head on. All I could do was minimize the damage. So I finally, reluctantly, agreed to a $100 per month child support order, and another $20 toward the back support. It would sting a bit, but I could live with it. Little did I know, that court order was just a foot in the door. And I had just opened a can of Financial Ass-Whip on my family the likes of which we had never seen before.
I was unaware at first that the back support I supposedly owed the County was collecting interest at a rate of 10%. And that the payments I was making weren't even coming within rifle range of the principal, but rather were slowly eroding the interest like gentle rain on a boulder. Then every few months when the interest was refigured, I was deeper in the hole than I had been to begin with.
So before I really realized what was happening, instead of losing $20 per month, I was getting 25% or more of my wages attached. Toward the end of logging season when I was lucky to work two or three days a week, they took half. The few times I ended up on unemployment, they took a quarter of that. My support order was doubled, then doubled again. And all my income tax refunds were confiscated, some of them sizable.
I sent away for a copy of my credit report and learned that I was listed as being delinquent in child support, not once or twice, but countless times. The only plastic in my wallet is my library card, but it's darn near impossible to rent a house these days without a shining credit report. This scenario would rear it's ugly head at a later date.
I checked the mail one day and discovered that my perfectly good driver’s license had been suspended for non-payment of child support. After several phone calls I was assured that it was a mistake that would be cleared up in a week or two. But I can't slam on the brakes and stop my world for every bureaucratic screw-up that falls in front of me. So I ran outlaw for awhile. Believe me, pulling an 18-wheeler into a CHP inspection knowing that your license is suspended isn't for the timid.
Then one winter night I centerpunched a deer at 60 with my motorcycle. I came out of it better than the deer did, but I was still out of work and on disability for six months. The Child Support Division came in and took a quarter of my meager disability checks. So I ended up on AFDC just to feed the boys and keep a roof over our head.
It was as if I was being attacked by a giant squid on crank. One tentacle taking hundreds of dollars a month from me while another handed me some food stamps. A tentacle sneaking around behind me to snag my driver's license, another grabbing my tax refunds and God only knows what the others were doing.
And it's not like my son and his mother’s side of the family were living on Easy Street. She was working enough by now to be receiving few if any benefits from AFDC. But she was told that if she left the program before their computer said she could, she may be required to pay back all benefits received. An ugly picture for a single working mom.
And regardless of how many fathers are paying child support to the County for the family, and regardless of how many hundreds or thousands of dollars the County collects in child support for the family each month, the family gets a check for 50 bucks. Strangely enough, this often trips the triggers at Social Services, who then cut their food stamps by 40 dollars. The County keeps the rest of the child support money collected. It's the law. And this money can and sometimes does far exceed any benefits paid out by the County to the family.
When I recovered from my injuries I started the first year-round job I've had in a long time. The Child Support Division stepped in and took 30% off the top. So with Federal tax and State tax and every other darn thing, I was giving over half my paycheck away to one level of government or another before I even had a chance to peek at it. After studying what I laughingly call my budget I realized that when my hours dropped in the upcoming winter the chances of keeping the rent paid were slim. And if we lost the house the chances of getting another were even slimmer considering that my credit report had DEADBEAT DADDY stamped on it a bazillion times. I had to get this changed, and pretty darn quick. I started bugging the Child Support Division to cut me some slack. But to no avail.
My son’s mother finally freed herself from the AFDC tar-baby, but it didn't change a thing, I was still paying child support. They just weren't getting any of it at all.
So I sent a letter to the District Attorney himself explaining my situation. The new guy seemed okay and I thought he might want to help clear up the mess his predecessor had left him. But I got no reply.
Thinking that I may have jumped the chain of command, I sent a letter to the head of the Child Support Division. But again, no reply.
So I sent a letter to my County Supervisor asking her to look at this situation. But she didn't reply either.
Winter was approaching at a high rate of speed. The County was taking a huge bite out of my paycheck. My son and his mother weren't seeing a penny of it. And no one on the government payroll gave a shit. Then they suspended my license again.
So I sent a letter to the State Attorney General’s Office. They replied immediately, telling me how very pleased they were to hear from me. They could not help me at all, but I should feel free to drop them a line whenever it struck my fancy.
Then I sent a letter to the Mendocino County Grand Jury. I wasn’t really expecting any help from that direction. By now I was conducting a recon by fire, shooting letters every which way hoping for a response. They seemed interested, so I met with them and testified and gave them copies of documents. But when their report came out the issues I had raised weren't addressed, and it was just another weak chapter in an otherwise weak document.
But I seem to have jarred something loose because with two days left in 1999 my wage attachment was dropped to $100 per month to pay off the almost two grand worth of back support they said I still owed. And they could even drop it to $50 if it would make it easier on me. They were here to help.
I sat down and figured out that when the interest scam was taken into consideration it would take me right around three years to pay this off at $100 per month. And at $50 per month I never would. And the whole time my wages would be attached, my income tax refunds taken, my driver’s license held hostage and all the credit reporting agencies reminded daily if not hourly that I was unwilling to support my own flesh and blood. I was given ten days to contest it, and I did.
I have run across a surprising number of local fathers who have had similar shady dealings with the Child Support Division over the years. And many of them had hired attorneys to try and reduce their often astronomic support bills. But when one is raising a family on $10 an hour, one might hesitate to hire a stranger for $200 an hour, especially when one had no way of knowing if the guy had done an hour's work or not. I would have to take on a building full of lawyers by myself.
I had no clear plan of attack. I have had so God Damn much money taken from me over the years that it was inconceivable to me that I owed them even more. But I couldn’t just go crying to the judge about how unfair it all was. 1 had to have some ammo. So I began to carefully examine the box full of documents I had collected since this ordeal started. And it was here that I discovered the strangest thing of all — not one living soul on this planet had a clue how much child support I owed, how much I had paid or where any of it went.
I had two different printouts of my account from the Child Support Division and I soon realized that none of the figures seemed to match, neither balance or payments or anything. And the difference between the balances shown for the same date were sometimes enormous. I began to compare them with other letters and forms and such, to find more of the same.
I could lay out four or five documents from the Child Support Division and the account balance shown for such-and-such a date varied between them by a thousand dollars or more. The Feds would tell me they were sending my tax refund to the County because of an account balance that wasn't even close to what the County said I owed. Then half the time I could not find a record of those refunds being credited to me, The State took my license when the County said I didn’t owe any money at all. The County was sending me a refund check for overpayment when another letter from the County said I owed almost three grand for the same date. You would think that with the laws of averages alone I would get a match somewhere. But nothing even came close, I found out later that the Child Support Division HQ has three or four different computer systems. And apparently they didn't even know each other by name.
I started tracking my interest payments, but I lost the trail before I hardly even started. Nonetheless, in a few hours time I had pages and pages of major bookkeeping discrepancies, it seemed I had found my ammo.
I took a day off work, drove to Ukiah, sat in court all day and got a parking ticket. And when I finally started presenting my case, the District Attorney's lawyer stopped me, saying that she was unprepared for this sort of offensive, and what with all the numbers and such she would have to talk it over with the bookkeeping department. The judge granted her an extension to give them a few weeks to prepare.
I took a day off work, drove to Ukiah, sat in court all day again, but this time I avoided the ticket. The Child Support Division had two lawyers, two accountants, a caseworker and a few spectators thrown in for good measure. So it seemed they were ready this time.
My point was that the bookkeeping of my account was so flawed that no one knew how much I owed or if I owed anything at all. And the chances of the County owing me $2,000 were better than me owing it to them. The County’s reply was that the correct amount I owed was now before the judge, and that the figures given in the 10 pounds of official documents I had before me could be disregarded, even though it was those very figures which had caused us so much grief in recent years. 'The judge agreed with the County, as is the nature of judges. So I began to chip away at the numbers, proving a couple hundred missing here and a hundred miscalculated there. It was hard work, but I was making headway. And late in the afternoon I was offered a deal. If I gave them $90, they would go away for good. So I did, And they did — at least so far.
So we made it through another Mendocino winter. And a few months later I watched the second of my sons graduate high school as a good man. I still have one more young buck to guide through those trying teenage years. But he has a good mother, and knowing someone is there to grab the ball when I fumble makes a world of difference.
I figure the County took well over $20,000 from us, through some mighty lean years. And most of it stayed in Ukiah, not even coming within shouting distance of the child they were claiming to help, This vexed me considerably for awhile, and I even went so far as to consult with an attorney with the intentions of suing the County to get some of my money back. But after spending the last eight years trying to run these folks out of my life, I just didn’t have it in me to go chasing them down the road to fight some more. So I put it behind me and carried on. If that's what it costs for the wolves to go find some other family to help for awhile, then I guess it was money well spent.