Deadbeat label ignores complexity of situation
Published July 7 2006She knew when her husband left for his mother's funeral in Massachusetts that he might be detained. Literally.
"I told him there's a 50-50 chance he wasn't coming home. But I didn't want him getting mad at me for talking him out of going."
So she packed her husband off to Braintree while she stayed behind in Hampton with their four kids.
And last week in a funeral parlor, as he paid his last respects to his mother, Stephen Burns was arrested for nearly $200,000 in unpaid child support and penalties for four other children he'd fathered in that state by two other women.
Because Burns is being portrayed in media in Massachusetts as one of the worst deadbeat dads ever, his wife would rather I not use her name. She wants to protect their kids, ages 4 through 11. I agreed.
I also agreed to let her have her say. She wants to balance out the scales a bit. To show a side of her husband that headlines haven't captured.
The man made mistakes. He should have been there unequivocally for his four Massachusetts kids.
"Without saying anything bad about his exes," she says carefully, endeavoring to be a peacemaker in all this, "if he'd had a choice in the matter, he would've been there for those children."
But child support payments of $975 a month can cripple a carpenter simultaneously struggling to support a family of six.
For a year, she says, her husband worked two jobs. The second, from 9 at night until 2 in the morning, went directly to child support. It wasn't enough.
"It was a lot of money, and it kept piling up," she says of the court-ordered payments. "And he'd get discouraged and afraid to go to Massachusetts because he was afraid he'd end up in jail."
Burns did end up in jail two years ago - eight months in Portsmouth, also over child support. His wife told their kids that Daddy was away on vacation. A fib won't work this time, even for the 4-year-old. This time, she laid it out for them.
"I told them everybody's going to make choices in life, and we're all responsible for the choices we make. And he made some bad choices. He should've at least sent something every week. When you make choices, you have to suffer the consequences."
The kids are upset, she says. They cried. "They really miss their Daddy," she says. "They want him home."
They'll have to wait another six months. Maybe more.
After that? The best-case scenario is that Burns will come home again, still eking out a living, still owing nearly $200,000.
It's a dilemma that fathers' rights advocate Jeffery Leving has seen time and again. An attorney and national consultant based in Chicago, Leving authored a book called "Fathers' Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute."
"Most so-called deadbeat dads are dead broke," Leving told me in an e-mail interview. "They are not able to pay child support and they are cut out of the lives of their children.
"I have talked to fathers who have been ordered to pay child support in excess of their income. I have talked to homeless fathers ordered to pay child support. The system seems to focus on punitive measures but not positive measures concerning men.
"They are not the only victims. Their children are, too. However, social and legislative change is slow because public opinion does not support paternal involvement in the lives of their children, but responsibility for child support. Men are viewed as lunch tickets, but not as parents."
I'm no apologist for divorced dads who don't pay child support. My father spent time in jail for that very thing.
Some parents deliberately sabotage their own ability to pay child support. Others try to pay, but can't keep up. Some mothers use access to children as a bargaining chip. Others can't get the bum to visit his kids. It's never simple.
Burns has another defender in Joseph Diggs, a friend for six years now. They volunteer together at their church, Hampton First Friends. They were volunteering at the church's children's camp in Wakefield last week when word came that Burns' mother had died.
"He always talked about his kids," Diggs says. "I mean, you couldn't get the man to shut up about his kids. He was a very loving father.
"People make mistakes. Steve's made his fair share of mistakes, just like I have. But he was in this path to correct (them). He was becoming the father he needed to be.
"He was a great guy. Still is. He's the farthest thing from a deadbeat father I ever met in my life."
All sides agree that it boils down to the kids. But kids can get trampled in the rush to justice. The four in Massachusetts, all adults now or nearly so, were raised by their mothers. The four in Hampton now face the same thing.
Mrs. Burns in Hampton understands the legal logic behind it, but not the common sense.
"They say it had nothing to do with the money," she says of the ex-wife and ex-girlfriend in Massachusetts who tipped off police about Burns' visit to his mother's wake. "And the reason they did this was he didn't try (to pay), that he wasn't there for those kids. But now they're taking him away from these kids.
"They're really good kids. They're very loving, very caring and very understanding kids. They do have their sibling rivalries, but they're very caring, and they're just awesome. I don't regret having them one bit. They fill my life."
For the next six months, at least, they'll have to.
Tamara Dietrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 247-7892.