Report: The Sci-Fi Movie Not
as Chilling As Child Support Enforcement,
Our Real “PreCrime” Program
|Essay by Robert Seidenberg
In the Tom Cruise
movie thriller, Minority Report,
the government is running a high-tech
“PreCrime” unit to prevent murder.
Three bug-eyed mutant psychics harnessed
to brain recording machines can foresee
the future. PreCrime government
agents like Tom Cruise use this information
to foresee murders and arrest the
“guilty” party before the murder
can be committed.
At the outset
of the movie, the PreCrime program
is at a crucial phase of transition.
Thus far it has been confined to a
pilot program in Washington DC; now
plans are set to take it nationwide.
There’s political stress over it.
Opponents, seeking to abolish the
program, rail against the gross effrontery
to democratic principles: PreCrime
allows the government to arrest and
incarcerate people who have not broken
any law. Couldn’t these people
chieftain, played sinisterly by Max
von Sydow, insists that PreCrime and
his agents are infallible. For his
own self-interest, he’s concealing
the fact that the vaunted machinery
is sometimes wrong¯there are some
cases where the three mutants don’t
agree, and a “minority report” is
issued revealing that the prediction
of murder is an error.
Although the politics
is secondary in this action-packed
drama, the story, based on a novella
by Philip K. Dick, vividly explores
one of the eternal questions about
the relationship of government to
the governed: When and how
may the state intrude into private
comparisons can be made between this
sinister sci-fi story and the grim
realities of the Child Support Enforcement
establishment. Like the PreCrime unit,
the child-support bureaucracy has
great power that remains largely invisible
to the public.
Punishment without Crime
To begin with,
Child Support Enforcement is a PreCrime
program. A child support order
is in essence both conviction and
punishment for the crime of not supporting
one’s children. Yet the vast
majority of child support orders are
established—at the outset of a divorce,
or at the birth of a child out-of-wedlock—before
a father has even had the opportunity
to “financially abandon” his child.
Not only is conviction and punishment
meted out to people who have not broken
any law, but it is virtually always
done without trial.
In many cases there
will eventually be a trial to decide
custody (formally divesting one parent
of custody is essential to maintaining
a child support order). But
such a trial will occur months after
the child support order has been decreed,
and will almost invariably confirm
the a priori decision.
More to the point, there is never
a trial to determine whether the father
has ever actually “financially abandoned”
his children. It is simply assumed
that he will at some point in the
To proponents of
the child support system, this comparison
may seem like hyperbole. After
all, our government is not convicting
anyone of murder or incarcerating
them; it is “simply ensuring that
fathers shoulder their responsibility.”
Such an objection fails to recognize
that a child support order is a form
of property seizure, and carries with
it the imminent threat of incarceration
for non-compliance. Moreover,
this objection leads us directly to
the question of the state’s compelling
interest. If child support is
not considered punitive, why do we
need the state’s intervention in the
Murder is the worst
of all crimes, and usually consists
in a single act. If we actually
had a technology to foresee murder,
there certainly would be a plausible
argument for allowing government intervention
before it occurred. “Financially
abandoning” one’s child, on the other
hand, is an amorphous behavior defined
by the Child Support bureaucracy itself.
Take for example,
the fairly typical case of Virginia
father Jim Taylor, a devoted father
who has joint custody and has his
three sons with him about half the
time. He earns $60,000 a year,
of which he must pay $24,000 in child
support, another $20,000 in taxes
(his ex-wife gets the tax benefits),
thus leaving him with $16,000 to support
a family of four. He has declared
bankruptcy and moved in with his grandmother.
Where is the state’s compelling interest
in ruining him?
The World’s “Worst Deadbeat”
One of the of the
most publicized cases raises similar
questions. In 1995, the Office
of Child Support Enforcement made
a great show of bringing Jeffrey Nichols,
the “World’s Worst Deadbeat Dad,”
to justice. Tracking, arresting,
prosecuting, incarcerating, and collecting
from him required the work of dozens
of employees in state and federal
agencies, including the FBI.
Had Nichols run off, leaving a poor
grieving mother with starving children
clinging to her legs? Hardly.
After being a dedicated
father for 16 years, Jeffery Nichols
gave up on paying a back-breaking
$10,000-a-month “child support” obligation
to his well-to-do ex-wife, who owned
a Manhattan real estate firm, and
her successful insurance broker husband.
In a mere five years after he stopped
paying support, Nichol’s child support
debt was $642,000. The children
were not young either. One of
the three was already 18 at the time
Nichols gave up paying. By the
time of collection, two of them were
emancipated, so only the youngest
child could “benefit” from the collection,
and only indirectly of course, since
child support must always be paid
directly to the custodial parent,
and never goes directly to the children.
Where was the state’s
compelling interest here? Is
this what we want our tax-paid workers
to do—to enforce the transfer of funds
between rich people?
Stranger than Fiction
To appreciate just
how surreal a real bureaucracy can
be, let’s return for a moment to the
sci-fi thriller. In the movie,
proponents of PreCrime justify expansion
of the program by pointing to its
stunning success. Since the
PreCrime unit was put in place, the
murder rate in Washington DC dropped
from thousands a year to a trickle.
If the ends can justify the means,
this is a powerful justification for
supporting the PreCrime bureaucracy,
even if a few innocent people are
lost in the process.
But what if it didn’t
work? What if, in the movie,
the murder rate increased astronomically
every year since the PreCrime unit
was put into place? And what
if, in an effort to stop the skyrocketing
murder rate, the PreCrime unit started
arresting more and more people who
had never broken any law.
wouldn’t make sense. What could
possibly be the rationale for perpetuating
a bureaucracy that compounded the
problem it was supposed to solve?
The story would lose its dramatic
tension because everyone would have
to agree that PreCrime should be abolished.
Yet this is exactly
what has happened with Child Support
Enforcement. Every year since
the inception of the federal Office
of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE),
the amount of unpaid child
support has increased as
the number of child support orders
has increased. And not by a
little. In 1988—the year the
federal government mandated guidelines
for the 50 states—there were approximately
5 million child supports orders in
place, and the amount of unpaid
child support was $11 billion.
By 2001, there were 11 million orders
in place and the amount of unpaid
child support had risen to $93 billion.
Unquestionably, the harder Child Support
Enforcement works, the larger the
If this does not seem stranger than
fiction, well, there’s more.
The “Designated Perpetrator”
The term “non-custodial
parent” has become so common that
it no longer seems weird, but we can
get a sense of just how strange it
is if we change it to “Designated
Perpetrator.” Our new term not
only has a nice sci-fi feel, but it
more precisely describes the non-custodial’s
relationship to the child support
No one can be guilty
of a child support crime except someone
who has a child support order issued
against him. Thus the game begins
when the state designates a perpetrator.
This is usually done over the strenuous
objection of the parent, which one
can readily understand if one disregards
the government-created myth of the
Deadbeat Dad, and replaces it with
the premise that it is the most normal
thing in the world for fathers, like
mothers, to love their children, and
it is the most horrible thing in the
world to have your children taken
from you. Thus, one of the severest
of state interventions—denial of parental
rights—takes place before any law
has been broken.
But it gets stranger.
Once designated a perpetrator, a
person can be found guilty of additional
crimes that no one else can commit!
is responsible for providing their
children with the necessities
of life—adequate food, clothing,
shelter, schooling. But
only a Designated Perpetrator
must support a lifestyle (as vividly
illustrated by the aforementioned
Nichols case). So for example,
all parents must provide their
children with shoes; but the child
support schedule is based on the
idea that a child who could have
$200 Nike’s in an intact family
is entitled to $200 Nike’s after
his parents divorce. Maintaining
such a standard is usually impossible
since supporting two households
is far more expensive than supporting
and custodial single parents are
only required to support their
children to age 18. But
in many states, Designated Perpetrators
are required to pay child support
until their children are 21.
parent, and no custodial parent
can be compelled to pay for their
children’s college education.
But in some states, Designated
Perpetrators can be compelled
to do so.
Here are some of
the coercive measures that Child Support
Enforcement can bring against a Designated
Perpetrator who commits a crime no
one else can commit: They can
withhold his wages; intercept his
state and federal income tax refund;
deny or revoke his driver’s license,
hunting license, and fishing license;
deny or revoke his professional license
(such as a license to practice medicine);
deny or revoke his passport; boot
his car; make direct reports on his
credit rating; place liens on any
and all of his property; post his
picture on a wanted list; break down
his door in the middle of the night
to arrest him in a “deadbeat roundup”;
and jail him. According to a
June 2003 survey conducted by Men’s
Health magazine, an estimated
100,000 fathers per year spend some
time in jail for failure to meet child
is the fact that the custodial parent
is treated as a Designated Innocent.
For although child support guidelines
require the custodial parent to contribute
a proportional amount for the support
of the child; it is simply presumed
that she does. There is no accounting.
Never ever. Nor is there any
punishment if she spends the money
on herself. If she buys herself
a $500 pair of Italian high heels
and the kid gets bargain-brand sneakers
at K-Mart, there is no consequence.
require State Offices of Child Support
Enforcement to convene a review board
every four years to assess their own
performance. The outcomes of
these reviews are predictable.
The majority of people on the review
board will be judges, lawyers, child
support bureaucrats, and others who
make their living on broken families.
They will, like clockwork, issue a
report recommending higher child support
rates and more draconian enforcement
In states where
there is an active fathers’-rights
presence, a handful of father advocates
will, with equal predictability, submit
a minority report. It will state
that the majority’s logic is specious
and self-serving; that the child support
program promotes divorce, destroys
the parent-child bond, and chokes
the life out of men who are struggling
to maintain a relationship with their
beloved children. The bureaucrats,
running their own game, will smoothly
deny this minority report means anything.
In the movie, Tom
Cruise finally began to pay attention
to the minority reports. They turned
out to be the key to the sinister
plotting going on.
Maybe it’s time
we start paying heed to the minority
reports on the child-support programs.
The truth is in there.
At the very least,
if we’re going in for PreCrime programs,
we should wait until we can replace
our boring judges and bureaucrats
with something truly interesting—like
bug-eyed mutant psychics.
Copyright 2004, Robert Seidenberg.
Robert Seidenberg lives in Alexandria,
Virginia. He is the author of The
Father’s Emergency Guide to Divorce-Custody
Battle. He can be reached at