It’s fairly taboo for guys to open up about how they end up in child support arrears, because so many of us still harbor old-fashioned ideas about our duty to provide for our family, whether it’s possible or not. In fact, it’s a huge source of shame for a lot of men, and there isn’t much in the way of pity out there, so the stories aren’t often told.
Well, I figure I ought to break the ice in this regard, as I am currently in arrears, and let people – young men in particular – know how it can happen.
I’ve never been a high earner, nor have I ever been very ambitious about making money, although I’ve worked for the overwhelming majority of my adult life and can’t really imagine not working in some capacity or another. I’m sure my lack of financial motivation had something to do with the breakdown of my marriage (although, actually, it was probably psychologically more of a problem for me than my ex), but before being divorced I wasn’t aware that it was a potential crime.
As is often the case, separation and divorce were a shock to me. I saw it coming out of the corner of my eye, and was resigned to it in a way, but like the typical man I was in deep denial and avoidance. When my ex finally ran off to begin her affair with the then-married man she now lives with in British Columbia together with my children, I was pretty much left prostrate. It turns out the event had been planned, and her mother was involved. Unfortunately, I had fostered a friendship between my boss and my ex-wife’s family after obtaining a job for my ex’s sister, and my ex mother in law used this relationship to my ex’s advantage, essentially cutting me off from employment at exactly the point my ex left me. She would later tell my own mother that she felt justified in this tactic, because “it was war.” Of course, for me it was more like Pearl Harbor, where you don’t know it’s war until the bombs are falling right on top of you, but people have all sorts of justifications for whatever they do.
So, I found myself unemployed in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s, with limited means, and alone facing a hostile wife, my children having been seized by her parents. Shortly after I filed for divorce to obtain a visitation schedule so I could see my children on some legal terms, I was falsely accused of making death threats while armed and had tactical officers approach my house with AR-15s. Mercifully, my ex recanted her lies under police questioning and the officers withdrew before I was shot to pieces in one of those humdrum “domestic disturbance” incidents, but my elderly neighbor nearly had a heart attack from fright and I learned that men armed with automatic rifles had questioned my neighbors about me in the meanwhile, which was humiliating to say the least.
Obviously, this was going to be an expensive divorce, and quite frankly I didn’t have the money to last long. After my attorney exhausted my retainer within a few months, I was on my own, and I was outclassed. After first admitting that I had never laid a hand on her in anger, my ex, under the guidance of her mother’s lesbian, feminist friends, started claiming abuse. There being no evidence, no corroboration and no arrests, the judge ignored her (this is a pro forma accusation in custody disputes), but I was totally demoralized. About six months after the separation, under the strain of being broke, under accusations from my ex, with a touch of PTSD from the SWAT incident and taking care of two toddlers alone much of the time, I started having severe anxiety attacks. It got to the point where I had episodes of dissociation — all of the sudden I’d feel as though nothing around me was real. I’d hold onto the nearest branch, rail or whatever was convenient just to ground myself in reality. I was a mess, but somehow I persevered and maintained some semblance of functionality. I don’t know how I pulled it off, and this is one of the times I’ve managed to surprise myself, but I was a pretty responsible and competent parent throughout all this, taking care of my children while their mother worked.
During this time, my ex’s attorney started working me, and I did my best pro se, but I had no idea about court schedules, rules, deadlines, etc. It was all a mystery to me, and I didn’t have the time in any event. Nevertheless, I managed to present some facade of resistance, so my ex decided to administer a killing blow. What she did was call CPS (child protective services) on me and accuse me of assaulting my son. She did this exactly as I was undergoing an evaluation by the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), in what was a calculated move to deep-six me prior to the trial, which was scheduled for a couple months down the line. Like her earlier attempt to have me arrested, the call had little immediate effect — the CPS agent checked my son and talked to him, interviewed me and determined the report “unfounded.” I breathed a sigh of relief, but of course I was even more stressed and demoralized than ever. Then, unbelievably, she called CPS again two weeks later, this time accusing me of assaulting my then two-year-old daughter. Again, I had to deal with CPS, and this time they said that, since my daughter was only two, they would be referring the case to the police. I called my former attorney, who told me to relax, but I couldn’t. And of course, I didn’t have the money to pay him, so he did little besides try to reassure me. Fortunately, once again the CPS agent declared the report unfounded, and the police declined the case, but the damage was done. The CASA worker – a grad school volunteer – decided to err on the side of caution, and before the CPS agent finished the investigation (she had a deadline) recommended I attend a domestic violence course for six months (typically reserved for convicted offenders) which would cost me thousands of dollars, and have supervised visitation of my children until its completion, which meant that I wouldn’t see them for all that time in any event, since I had no family to stay with me at the time.
I was shattered, broken, beaten down. An attorney friend suggested I go to trial pro se, since I couldn’t get a worse deal either way, and he was probably right, but I simply couldn’t handle it — I was spent. About this time my ex’s attorney approached me with what looked like a reasonable parenting plan with decent time with the kids and a minimal amount of conditions. I would have to attend a ten-hour parenting class (so would my ex) and sixteen hours of anger management, and there would be no supervised visitation following the parenting class. There was only one catch — I would be imputed with income I didn’t have and pay more child support than I could afford. Thinking of the alternative, which could mean six months of an expensive domestic violence program that would mark me as admitting guilt for something I never did and possibly compromise my parenting time permanently, I signed. After all was said and done, in one of the strangest and most unexpected incidents of the entire affair, my ex’s attorney actually called and offered something like an apology — she said, in a roundabout way, that the CPS and police calls weren’t her idea. I really have no idea what prompted this, but I can only imagine my former attorney must have said something to her about playing dirty.
Of course, being broke and unemployed, it didn’t take long for arrears to start to build, and it took me some time before I could start paying in full, by which time I was already months behind. My meager bank accounts were seized in the dead of night, I have been threatened by the child support agency, and my credit was reported to all national agencies. There’s a hold on passport renewal with the State Department, my tax returns are subject to seizure, and I could be jailed or have my licenses seized at any time. Given that I am also paying off student loans, becoming “current” will be a rather painful process. Although it’s not a pleasant place to be, at least I know that I am merely one of millions in the same situation, and many have it a lot worse than I do.
Yes, it sounds like an awful mistake, but to me, the time with my kids was worth it. They can throw me in jail, make a pariah out of me, or proclaim me a worthless deadbeat to the entire world, but I am not in the least bit ashamed — my conscience is clear.
However, I still want young men to learn from my own travails. Never go into marriage or fatherhood without being fully aware of the risks they entail. Never look at a young, willing woman without a critical eye, and always be prepared for the worst. And, if you should ever find yourself in this position, don’t lose faith or despair — they can take all your worldly possessions, your children, and even your freedom, but they can never make it right, and there are such things as honor and goodness in the world. Believe it, for yourself and your kids if for nobody else.