The scornful term of "deadbeat dads" has become increasingly popular in describing fathers who do not uphold their legal responsibility of supporting their children after divorce.
These days, the derogatory title comes with the attached connotations drawing to mind images of fathers who abandon responsibility to their kids and don't care about them at all. That is not usually the case.
The legal definition defines deadbeat parents as "parents of either gender who have freely chosen not to be supportive parents or who do not pay their child support obligations." However, the label has become so generalized that the "freely chosen" aspect is too often forgotten.
Most of the fathers lumped in as deadbeats are not dads unwilling to support their children -- they are simply unable to afford the child support. When 66 percent of all child support not paid by fathers is due to an inability to come up with the money, calling all the dads who miss payments "deadbeats" is painting with far too broad of a brush.
As someone who founded a men's divorce law firm almost 25 years ago, I know most of these men are not bad people; they love their kids, they want what is best for their kids, they want to be there for their kids.
However, because of the way custody orders often work out, many of these fathers rarely get the opportunity to see their children while some don't get to see them at all. (Just the latest case in point is the recent release of startling stats from Nebraska showing 72 percent of child custody cases result in dads only seeing their children 5.5 days a month.)
Despite how they may feel, these loving fathers are stigmatized as deadbeats -- regardless of why they missed the payments.
The problem is further complicated by harsh laws and punishments enacted on those unable to come up with the money. If a father is behind on his payments, the state or child support agencies will do anything in their power to collect what is owed, including garnishing wages, intercepting their income tax refund, or suspending their driver's license.
If a father gets too far behind and these methods fail, a court hearing is scheduled and the father (who in many states is not provided an attorney because the case is a civil and not criminal matter) could be facing up to one year in jail; again, simply because they are too poor to afford the payments.
Lacking the money to pay child support all but guarantees they cannot afford legal counsel on their own, leaving them to the whim of an unrelenting court system that looks down on them as horrible people and essentially ensures punishment.
This vicious treatment creates a modern-day debtor's prison for destitute fathers who are more often than not perfectly willing to pay their support if they had sufficient funds.
It can also create an unfair cycle: They are unable to pay their support, perhaps because they lost their job, so they are thrown in jail. They still won't have a job when they get out, but are required to make payments they can't afford, so they are thrown back into jail.
No matter how they try, broke fathers are not able to get back on their feet because the state continues to sweep their legs out from under them. Society and the courts scrutinize them as "deadbeats" and unloving fathers who have essentially abandoned taking care of their children.
However, it is frequently the unforgiving system itself that led them to their predicament in the first place.