by Michelle D. Chan, California Families Rise
Child support in America is a hypocrisy. It purports to ensure economic stability of children, when in fact many of the policies unfairly criminalize, devastate, oppress and marginalize the poor and the vulnerable. Low-income, noncustodial fathers of color face the most devastating consequences.
Imagine losing everything in bitter divorce or child protection proceedings. Imagine being permanently cast away from your life and your children. Imagine being ordered to pay more money than you take home for minor children you can no longer see. Imagine the searing pain each month, when emotional scars tear open. Seeing your paycheck vanish like clockwork is a cruel reminder that your children are nowhere near.
Imagine being so poor that you often feel as if nothing in this world belongs to you. Imagine being jailed, losing your license, your freedom, your dignity for the mere crime of being poor.
Carceral Punishment, Revocation of Driving Rights, and the Invisibility of a Noncustodial Parent
Can’t drive to work. Can’t own a lease. Can’t hang onto a job. Criminals of poverty are we, the noncustodial and paying parents. Do we even exist in your eyes, America?
Paul Guevara’s life changed in an instant one winter afternoon in the outskirts of Sacramento, when he came home early from a double shift at work. The sun was beginning to set, but the lights in the house were still off. Paul flipped the light switch and his eyes were scalded by the sight of his wife in bed with his best friend. Till this very day, Paul remembers every detail, every scent, every sound of that singular moment. He remembers the feelings of pain and betrayal and sorrow rushing through him like lava, like poison. It was the most painful of moments and it all happened in slow motion. Something, everything, inside of him imploded—his soul perhaps.
Nothing since that excruciating moment has ever been the same. The divorce happened in a flash. The family court judge granted the move-away order. Paul’s family would be moving with the new boyfriend to Utah. And since the mother won the children, that meant Paul would have to pay. It didn’t matter that Paul had lost his job since falling into a debilitating depression. It didn’t matter that Paul had a junior high school education. In family court there are winners and losers, and Paul lost literally everything.
It’s not easy to get back on your feet after such devastation. Even under normal circumstances it would have been difficult for Paul to adjust to losing 60% of your income. It didn’t take long before he fell behind on his payments. After just a few missed payments, the child support arrears took off like a runaway train.
A mountain of child support debt so high it was a joke. Then Paul’s driver’s license was revoked and his ability to earn income significantly impacted, since he lived in rural Marysville which lacks a public transportation system and access to rideshare services. In an eye’s blink Paul was pushed to the margins of society.
Paul has barely survived over the years working any side jobs he could find, in the fields, on farms, and once in a fish packing factory. In the fields picking vegetables, Paul’s face turns to leather under the hot sun as he grazes all day on hand-picked veggies as he works. He lives in hostels, dorms, and in shacks with no running water or heating.
Paul knows now that the path to hell is through the halls of the Sacramento Family Court.
More than anything, Paul misses his children. In the past seven years, he has only seen his children once and for a couple weeks. After falling behind on child support payments, his ex began withholding the children from him. With them all the way in Utah, there has been little Paul can do to fight back.
SB 1055: Decriminalizing Parenting and Poverty by Reducing Driver’s License Suspensions
Impoverished noncustodial parents crippled by child support obligations and arrears are among society’s most oppressed and unfairly stigmatized. These are America’s invisible parents. Their struggles are widely ignored and overlooked by the general public and policymakers.
I implore you to open your eyes and open your hearts and see the human before you. Do not be blinded by bias. Struggling and heartbroken fathers like Paul deserve to be seen for who they are, not eclipsed by a racist, classist stereotype. Unfortunately, Paul’s heartbreaking story is quite universal. If you walk through the poorest communities of color and talk to homeless men, you would be surprised how many had become homeless as a direct result of the child support system and driver’s license suspensions.
Senator Sydney K. Kamlager, who represents the 30th Senate District which includes parts of Los Angeles, is leading the charge against the criminalization and oppression of poor parents of color. Included in her 2022 legislative package are two bills focused at the intersection of parenting and poverty justice: (1) SB 1085, which seeks to protect and keep families together by redefining neglect in child welfare cases; and (2) SB 1055, which would reduce license suspensions for nonpayment of child support.
SB 1055 passed through the ranks of the legislature with strong support from the Senate and Assembly. It is now on Governor Newsom’s desk awaiting his signature.
Please reach out to Governor Newsom’s office and urge him to end the oppression of impoverished parents by signing SB 1055.
Michelle D. Chan is a writer, vlogger, mother, parents’ rights activist, and founder and director of California Families Rise. California Families Rise is one of the sponsors of SB 1055. To find out more about our efforts or to join our cause, visit www.CaliforniaFamiliesRise.com or email CaFamiliesRise@gmail.com.