“I fought the law and the law won.
I fought the law and the law won.”
Like catching a case of the giggles in a funeral, I found myself smirking at the remembrance of this song – though I was not at all happy about the circumstances or the reason I was being “locked up.”
Growing up, I had a record player in my room. As best as I can remember it, I only owned 2 records myself; one of a Bill Cosby routine and the other was Bob Newhart – both delivering hilarious deadpan comedic genius. I listened to both of them repeatedly for years. When those two were not spinning in my room, I would borrow some LP’s from my step-Dad’s collection. One favorite from the Bobby Fuller Four was called, “I fought the law and the law won.” The lyrics, “I needed money because I had none” and “robbing people with a six gun” lead the listener to assume the nature of the “fight” with the law.
Last August, I had my own “fight” with the law. Needless to say, my “fight” was a bit different than the one in the song. I wish I could tell you I was a fighting a speeding ticket or that I appeared before a judge because of a parking violation. No, my “crime” was a bit more serious. And no, it did not involve “robbing people with a six gun.”
Unfortunately, my “fight” with the law had to do with child support. Like most divorced Dads, I am required (by law) to pay this each month. However, instead of my child support amount being determined by my income, I am required to pay a flat amount regardless of how much money I make. (For the record, I foolishly agreed to this arrangement while unemployed unaware of how difficult finding a salaried position would be in a struggling economy) The amount I owe, by anyone’s standard, is high – particularly in relation to my income. To make matters worse, I have really struggled to find consistent employment and employment that will pay consistently. I have sent my resume to hundreds of companies (literally) and have found that the only companies that will pay the professional income I need are the commission-only sales jobs. As those who share a similar compensation can attest, commission-only sales can be “feast or famine.” Some months you make quota, some months you don’t. Given this economy, it’s been mostly famine. Many months I have been unable to pay rent, and barely able to put gasoline in my car or keep my electric on. It’s been that bad. It’s not that I didn’t want to pay my child support – I literally couldn’t and still survive. The months I had the money, I paid. As the saying goes, “you can’t get blood from a stone.”
So last August, I found myself back in court – as a Defendant, trying to explain to a family court judge as to why I was behind (yet again) on the child support. Though there were many factors that attributed to my inconsistent track record, I tried to merely explain what caused the most recent infraction. Not being able to afford a lawyer, I reluctantly represented myself and was given only a few minutes to plead my case. In my possession I had proof of employment, proof of why I was not able to pay child support that month (I lost an unprecedented 5 sales in one month thus causing a charge back of commission) and proof of incoming income. The judge was not interested in seeing any documentation. My request to approach the bench with this information was denied. Shockingly, he then turned to the Plaintiff and asked for her suggestion on how to handle this situation. Her suggestion was crystal clear… I should be sent to jail. Apparently there I would “learn my lesson.”
Within seconds, the judge declared his verdict, grabbed the gavel and slammed it on the mahogany wood “bench.” I was to be sentenced to six months in the local county jail. Needless to say, I stood there a bit stunned. All I kept thinking was, “How is this in the best interest of my children? How does me being in jail get them the money they need?” Within 30 seconds I was in custody and whisked away by the courtroom bailiff.
Once I was out of the courtroom, I immediately surrendered my personal belongings and three different set of cuffs were placed on me; one on my wrists, one around my waist and one binding my ankles. I was treated like a dangerous serial killer. A bit extreme, I thought, for a man who unintentionally violated a civil court order.
Over the next hour, I watched man after man enter in from the courtroom, all before the same judge, all violating the same order, all receiving the same exact sentence. As we compared stories in our 10 x 15 cell, it was obvious that justice was the last thing being served that day. The family court’s objective is to determine what is in the “best interest of the children.” The court is the established keeper of this mantra. That is the standard that all parties (Judge included) are supposed to follow. It falls to the court to determine not only WHAT is in the children’s best interest but how to enforce it. Granted, it is in the best interests of the children to receive child support. Raising children costs money. Most divorced dads understand that and 98% of us want to get the kids what they need. 98% of us pay what we can as soon as we can.
That morning, in that tiny little cell directly behind the Judge’s chamber, every divorced dad in chains asked the same question, “How is THIS in our kid’s best interest? How is losing our jobs in their best interest? How is losing our homes and worldly possessions in their best interest? How can a Dad be expected to provide anything for his children when everything is being taken away?”
Over the next few months, I sat, ate, worked and slept next to over 250 divorced dads incarcerated for their failure to pay child support. I learned their names and heard their stories. Of the throng of men I met, only a handful were truly “deadbeat dads,” the scarlet letter title automatically given to men in our predicament. The majority of the men are dads who love their kids. They are dads who want to provide for their children. They are dads who, for various reasons, are victims of this economy or the target of an ex-wife who just wants to see them punished for past sins. And sadly, the courts facilitate such revenge with counter productive punishments like jail sentences. Jail should be for criminals. Or actual deadbeat dads (the few I met). Jail should be for dangerous people; drug dealers, drug users, shoplifters, murderers, rapists and burglars – not loving dads who are struggling in a hurting economy.
Ten dads lost their jobs.
Ten dads lost their homes.
Ten dads lost their worldy possessions.
And what about the children represented in those 10 families? They lost too.
The children lost their dads for a season of their life – a season they can never get back again.
And they lost the financial support they needed while their dad was incarcerated.
But hey, the law won.
And THAT is in the best interest of the children.
- Sadly, this was my fourth appearance before a family court Judge in four years. Every time, the Judge has threatened me with jail. (It is their default threat since the County financially benefits from dads being incarcerated.) All three times previously, the Judge required me to pay an extraordinary amount of money, within days of that hearing, or a bench warrant would be issued for me. All three times, I was able to borrow that sum of money to avoid jail time. As is their custom, the Judge oftentimes will ask the Plaintiff what outcome they would like to see happen. (I have since learned that Moms hold tremendous influence as to what happens to the “deadbeat dad.”) In a previous hearing, the Plaintiff did ask the Judge to keep me out of jail since I played an instrumental role in the children’s schedule – taking them to and from school every day (a 2 to 5 hour commitment per day, depending upon the after school activity). By the time of the hearing mentioned in this post, the Plaintiff had re-married, moved the children out-of-state (again) and I was no longer needed to help with the children’s daily schedule.
- A note from an eyewitness that day: “I am honored to be a friend of Rod Arters. I was privileged and pained to be in court with him on the day he describes in this blog. I can attest that everything he writes about the courtroom experience is true. I was there. I was a witness.” – Reverend Michael Holt