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Child Support or Welfare for Moms Paid By Dads?

In April 2004, music and fashion mogul Sean "Diddy'' Combs was ordered to pay the mother of his first child, Misa Hylton-Brim, just under $35,000 per month in child support -- the largest amount awarded in New York state history. Combs and his lawyers had the sum reduced to $21,782 and then again to about $19,000 a month. But even that cut rate made his royal Diddy-ness the poster papa for men who feel child support awards are becoming increasingly unfair to fathers. "A court doesn't tell me what to do to support my child," a heated Combs said to the NY Daily News after the verdict. "This is not about child support, it's about adult support." Though most men are nowhere in the financial stratosphere of Combs, child support today is as volatile an issue to brothers in barber shops as it is to Bobby Brown. Many men feel as if they are being entrapped, stigmatized and even criminalized, when it comes to current child support laws.

And many black women want their children supported. But because nearly 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, there needs to be a happy medium if the community is to thrive. Whereas in the past, child support was seen as more a moral issue -- men who make children should always be responsible for them -- it is now more about economics, even if it's not politically correct to say so. After President Bill Clinton's welfare reform bill, the government (and tax payers) began aggressively shifting the burden of support to fathers, where many claim it should be. Yet, in a recent New York Times article on the perilous state of black men ('Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn,' March 20, 2006), Georgetown University economist Harry J. Holzer said that after incarceration, "the stricter enforcement of child support" policies is the largest factor in keeping young black men tethered to poverty. By keeping young black men overwhelmed by debt and therefore outside of legal employment, support obligations "amount to a tax on earnings."

Christian Wilder, a writer from Philadelphia, PA, agrees. Wilder currently has custody of his 10-year-old son, and pays child support for his two daughters (ages 3 and 7), whom he says he rarely sees. An avid advocate of family court reform, Wilder believes that the ways the current laws are structured, that a man in essence can never have another family because he is already supporting one through child support. "When you're married, you're committed to a family," says Wilder. "When you have sex with someone you've met in a club, you haven't committed to a thing." "While a woman has all of those options of keeping the child and raising it, a man can only just follow the whim of the woman," he continues. "And when a woman has a child, the man becomes financially responsible." Wilder advocates that when a man is married to a woman and they separate or divorce, that support obligations should be at their current rate which in some states is about 17 percent of a man's earnings. However, as is the case in Australia, if two people are not married, the rate of obligation decreases to about 8 to 10 percent of the father's income. "If there wasn't a guarantee of financial support, a lot of these babies wouldn't even be born," argues Wilder. "There are people who can't afford babies, but they go ahead. Getting him for child support, then he can't support his own family. There shouldn't be a guarantee."

In a recently filed lawsuit in a Michigan Court, 25-year-old Matt Dubay is fighting a court order to pay child support to his ex-girlfriend because he said he was clear from the beginning that he didn't want a child. Dubay was ordered to pay $500 a month to a daughter born last year, although his girlfriend repeatedly told him she could not get pregnant. The National Center for Men brought the case on behalf of Dubay, and dubbed the case the "Male Roe vs. Wade." NCM argues that the present policies do not give men equal protection under the law. Mel Feit, founder and director of New York-based organization, asks why women have seemingly endless choices when it comes to dealing with pregnancy -- from birth control to adoption to abortion to abandonment (which is legal in most states), while men are limited to condom usage or celibacy. "I think that the whole point of Roe is that celibacy shouldn't be the only way to exercise birth control and reproductive choice," says Feit. "That's exactly what Roe means for women." Feit actually advocates a short (maybe 1-2 weeks) opt-out period, where the man can tell the woman that he does not want responsibility for the child. He then would have no obligation of support for the child but couldn't later change his mind and be in the child's life.

Though most scholars and legal experts don't think this case has a snowball's chance in hell, Dubay has said that he wants to get the dialogue started, and Feit, possibly facetiously says he wouldn't have brought the case forward if he thought they couldn't prevail. Leslie Sorkhe, Director of Operations for ACES, the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support says the Dubay suit has no merit, legally or morally. "We feel that the suit is ridiculous, and we feel like children deserve emotional and financial support from both parents," she says. "Children are entitled to equal protection under the law." In terms of black men specifically, Wilder says that current system just increases criminalization. "Now, you're a criminal," says Wilder, speaking of existing court policies.

"They're garnishing your paycheck. You're embarrassed throughout your life. Now there's a letter coming down to your job. You can't go to jail for any other monetary debt. There's no debtors jail in this country unless it's child support. They take your driver's license away, it's on your credit report, imputing income that you don't have. This stuff happens every day." "If you have sex without a condom, the punishment shouldn't be that you live at the poverty level for 20 years," Wilder continues. "The bottom line is that it changes your life too much for you to not have a choice."