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Minority 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 be innocent?

The bureaucratic 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 lives?  

Some instructive 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 future.

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 first place?

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. 

Obviously, that 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 problem becomes.

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 bureaucracy. 

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!  For example:

  • Every parent 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 one.
  • Married parents 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. 
  • No married 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.
Coercive Measures

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 support obligations.

Equally surreal 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.

Minority Report

Federal guidelines 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 tactics. 

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 seidenberg@verizon.net.