Saturday, November 28, 2009

Same Old, Same Old

It looks as if any effective healthcare legislation is dead, just as I predicted months ago. It's not that I'm psychic, just that I've been through this movie before, so I could just about guess how the debate would go. In the end, they'll pass a little something, enough so the Democrats can brag to their constituents that they passed a healthcare bill, little enough so the Republicans can brag to their constituents that they gutted it into a farce. The Republicans will be more right than the Democrats.

And in the end, what will have been a prime factor in the downfall of health care? Why, that old bugaboo, abortion, the scene of so many of our legislative crimes, the same issue that has torn us apart for generations.

Funny, how we continue to tie ourselves in knots arguing about whether or not children should have to be born then pay so little attention to the end result. My job is to interview low income citizens to help them find pro bono counsel for their legal problems. Although I haven't recorded the statistics, I don't have to. I know from first-hand experience that children are the cause of most of my clients' legal and financial and emotional woes.

I have the desperate Moms whose partners (sometimes these are husbands but more often, they are not) have disappeared, taking any responsibility for their children with them when they go. Therefore, her family survives, barely, via food stamps, Section 8 housing, Medicaid, and what we in Indiana label, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which is cash in the amount of approximately $229 a month per child. The temporary part of TANF is a joke because what is she going to do to to make it temporary? Not take a low paying job because that would risk her benefits and only a fool would trade something for nothing. Get an education? Maybe for some, if she can figure out how to find decent daycare and get to classes with the piece of crap car that is all she can afford. And if she still has the determination and dedication after struggling with kids and poverty on a day to day basis.

I have the frantic Dads, some of them able and willing to pay support for their children. Eager to remain a part of the kids' lives but that's not how Mom wants it. She has an excuse every time he calls to make arrangements for his visitation. The child is sick or staying with a friend or whatever, whatever. His recourse is to file Contempt for Failure to Comply with Visitation against her. They go to court. The judge gives her a lecture. She must comply with his Order. Except she doesn't. So, he takes her to court again. It is a vicious cycle they engage in until he finally loses heart and gives up. Does this mean that at least he'll get out from under his child support obligations. Oh, no. Child support and Visitation are not linked in the law's eyes. He'll keep on paying whether he is ever allowed to have a relationship with his kids or not.

Or she relocates to another state with his children, although she is supposed to file an Intent to Relocate with the court 90 days before she moves and wait for the judge's permission. She doesn't, and what happens then is....nothing. I've never known any state to extradite a parent who moved without waiting for a court order. He has no clue where she and the children are at even though she is supposed to keep him informed. The State damned well knows because she'll make sure to sign up for her support to be sent to her new location. The money will be taken out of his pay. You'd think the Child Support office would tell him but they won't. It seems he has no right to be informed.

I have hysterical mothers who have received court papers notifying them that the father of their children has filed to take custody from them. He has a decent job and can afford an attorney; she can't. And that's where I come in. I try to find her representation so it will be a somewhat fair fight. But most of my attorneys are reluctant to take custody cases for free because they are ugly and often, never-ending. I've seen cases where a multitude of filings are hurled at one another over years until the only thing that ends it is the children growing up.

Child support offices are set up to help custodial parents so that the payors are left to fend for themselves. Child support isn't modified on a dime. If your child support was based on a good job from which you are now laid off, good luck getting it changed in a timely manner. Now you're living on unemployment benefits but your same amount of support is being deducted from your check, leaving you almost nothing to survive on yourself.

Get too far behind, for whatever reason, and you'll eventually come to the attention of the Prosecutor's office. If your arrearage mounts up too high, charges will be filed against you. You could end up in jail. Or you can have your professional license revoked or your tax refund attached or your driver's license suspended.

All these laws had a positive rationale. In general, it is in the best interests of the government to insist that parents help support their children but, in reality, the way they are administered is often wildly unfair.

I have emotional young fathers. Their ex-girlfriend is pregnant and now she wants nothing to do with him, doesn't even want to acknowledge that the child is his. She just wants him out of her life. "But it's my baby too," he cries, "surely, I have some rights!" Well, maybe - if you can pay to have a paternity test done and if we can find you an attorney and if you want to take the chance of putting yourself on the line to pay support for the next 21 years even though she might flee with a child you'll never see.

Or I have the opposite. He signed the birth certificate even though he wasn't sure, you know, that the baby was his because he loved her and was willing to accept the child as his own. But, now, she's broken up with him. She's keeping the baby from him but she's filed for support!

I have cases in which Mom didn't file for support right away but finally, she does (perhaps because the State requires her to name the father if she collects any benefits for the baby, such as Medicaid). So, after all this time, he gets a notice to come to court and ends up owing a huge debt of arrearage, dating back to the birth which, he has considered a non-event until now. Good luck paying for the next two decades, son.

I have heartbroken grandparents trying to get guardianship of their grandchildren. Neither the young father or mother are responsible enough to function as parents. They don't work; they're on drugs; their homes, if they have homes, are filthy; they're neglectful, perhaps even abusive. Tearful Grandma and Grandpa tell me tragic stories about the conditions in which their grandchildren exist.

And Child Protective Services, supposedly the agency that moves to protect children? I'll leave that pathetic story for later.

In my experience, the younger generations shrug at the idea of marriage. It doesn't occur to them that marriage is for the protection of themselves and their children. Marriage creates a legal family. If that family fails, a dissolution of marriage sets the conditions regarding custody, child support and visitation. Lays everything out with at least an attempt at fairness. She's the mother; he's the father. They both have rights and privileges under those designations.

Forego marriage and it all becomes a big mess. No one quite knows where they stand without a series of hearings so the judge can try to straighten it out. Usually, no one is happy with the end result.

I've had young mothers come to see me because Partner A signed the birth certificate but Partner B was really the father. Now, she's split with Partner A and she and Partner B are together. Can I find her an attorney who can help her get the birth certificate changed so that Partner B is deemed the legal father and the baby's last name can be changed to his?

All this makes me want to grit my teeth in frustration. I want to ask, "do you not give a single moment's thought to the consequences of having a baby?" The unfortunate answer is: no, a lot of them don't.

And while this is going on, what our politicians fight about is abortion. I would love to sit everyone of them down and force them to listen to me for about a week. I would love to ask, "while you're spending all this time worrying about bringing more babies into this world, do you ever spare a freakin' minute to think about the ones who are already here?"

The politicians and the pro-lifers and the priests who are more concerned with fetuses than actual babies make me sick.