Article: Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors.

Byron Ricks

8/22/202354 min read

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Caring and Paying:

What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support

Section II:

Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Mercer L. Sullivan

[ Main Page of Report | Contents of Report ]


l The Harlem and Brownsville Groups

l The Queens Group

l Implications for Policy and Parents' Fair Share

l Selected Background Reading for Section II

l Endnotes

This section of the report is based on focus group interviews conducted with a total of 42 noncustodial

fathers in New York City by Mercer Sullivan and Terry Williams. Three of the groups, interviewed in

August 1990, were made up of residents of predominantly low-income neighborhoods of New York

City. Most of the men had low levels of education and many had persistent employment problems.

Many were the fathers of children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and all

were African-American adults. The 17 members of two groups organized by Terry Williams were

residents of Harlem and ranged in age from 19 to 39. Most were in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

The 14 members of a group organized by Mercer Sullivan were residents of Brownsville (in the borough

of Brooklyn) and had a similar age distribution. Several of the participants in these groups had more

than one child, often by different mothers. The Brownsville group included some steadily employed men

along with others who were unemployed, some on a long-term basis and others temporarily. In the

Harlem group, fewer men seemed to be steadily employed and some openly claimed to have illegal


A fourth focus group interview was conducted by Mercer Sullivan with 11 white noncustodial fathers in

February 1992, and was supplemented by brief individual telephone interviews with the participants.

Most of these men were from the borough of Queens. None were college-educated and all had low to

moderate incomes. Several were recruited through a research center in Brooklyn, near the Queens

border, that offers free testing for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS.

Many of the men who come in for these tests are current or former users of intravenous (IV) drugs. (1 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

However, to broaden the focus group membership, several men who were neither current nor former IV

drug users were recruited through those originally contacted at the research center. Of the 11

participants, five were receiving methadone treatment. The other six were neither methadone nor IV

drug users, although some had at one time in their lives abused drugs or alcohol. The men ranged in age

from 23 to 49. They were all noncustodial fathers, and their children ranged in age from 2 to 24.

The questions asked in all four New York City focus groups concerned the fathers' relationships with

their children and with the mothers of their children, their own personal histories (especially their work

histories), and their knowledge of and contact with the child support enforcement system.

The following discussion of the fathers' attitudes and behaviors is divided into two parts. The first

reports on the interviews with the Harlem and Brownsville men, all African-Americans. The second

reports on the white men from Queens. While the employment experiences of the two populations differ

-- with more job-holding among the white men -- their views of fatherhood and child support are similar.

[ Go To Contents ]

The Harlem and Brownsville Groups

Family Responsibilities

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, the men in these focus groups expressed powerful feelings about

men's responsibilities toward their families. These expressions came both in response to direct questions,

such as "What does it mean to be a father?", and spontaneously in the course of discussions of more

specific topics, such as how many children they had and where they lived. It was quite apparent that the

men's own emotional lives were intensely bound up both with their own children and with other family

and household relations, including their own families of origin and other children with whose mothers

they maintained relationships. Such expressions of paternal feeling as "I love them" and "that's your

blood" recur throughout the focus group transcripts. One participant spoke of his feelings on the birth of

his child: "I was proud to be a father, I was really excited and I said … God bless the little kid."

Some of the men seemed to be explicitly addressing a perceived stereotype of African-American men as

lacking in paternal feeling. One said, "Black men today do not like to lose their children." Another said,

"A black man is supposed to support his black kids … you are supposed to take care of that because

that's yours."

These same men, however, also acknowledged freely that they and other men in their communities,

including their own fathers, were often separated from their children. One said:

Whether I'm with the woman or not, that's mine and I'm gonna take care of mine because I

didn't like the way mines did us. (2 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Another, asked to rate the importance of a man's taking care of his children, on a scale of one to 10, said,

"I say the full 10 because it don't go that way but that's the way it's supposed to be." Another expressed

his own sorrow at separation: "I love my children very much. I miss them now. Sorry me and their

mother couldn't get along." Many see their children frequently. Others do not. One was a primary

caretaker of one child and a noncustodial parent of another. Some are primary caretakers for days and

weeks at a time.

The men had lived all their lives in communities where fathers are often separated from their children,

which seems to color their views of family responsibilities. Discord in their romantic relationships with

the mothers of their children (most were not married). For some, involvement with drugs, crime, and

incarceration also affected their views. A number of their stories and discussions illustrate these themes.

For example, some of their feelings of manhood and attempts to support their children appeared to be

closely tied to their own experiences of having grown up separated from their fathers. One spoke of

"knowing that yours didn't do right by you, so, if you make a family, you gonna want to do right."

Another said, "I don't know my pops, so I always wanted my son to be with his, to know his father."

Another focus group member expressed the relationship between child support and manhood directly:

"A dog can make a baby. A man can take care of it."

Several of the men were in complicated family situations in which they felt responsibility to multiple

households, not just those in which their own biological children resided. Some lived with their own

families of origin and said things such as, "I'm staying with family and I got to pay rent there." One man

said that when he received his meager paycheck, he first gave some to his mother, with whom he

resided. He explained, "I hit Mama first, you know how them elderlies are, living on SSI [Supplemental

Security Income] type of thing." Others said they lived with women who had children by other men and

made their first contributions to those households.

Complicated family situations were also reflected in conversations about sexual and romantic

relationships. One topic discussed at length in one group was whether having more than one woman

increased one's feeling of manhood. Another reason for their multiple relationships with women

emerged when they talked about their difficulties in attracting and staying attractive to women. In both

groups, some men talked about how interested women are in money and how a man without money

cannot attract them:

They are greedy, man.

If you don't got money, they don't want to deal with you.

If they see you with gold, they want to deal with you. Then, if you don't have it on, some

girls don't want to talk to you. It depends on the way you dress.

Another man, who is married, said that not being able to find work made him not want to go home and (3 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

face his wife and children. He concluded that it was easier to have a brief fling with someone new,

because that only required "a little money in your pocket" at the time, not a steady income. He said, "On

the outside, you can maintain an image; inside, nothing there."

One of the most common reservations expressed about making child support contributions concerned

situations in which the mothers of their children were living with other men. Such circumstances appear

to have powerful inhibiting effects on their desire to make contributions to their own children. One said:

[A man] feels he may not be supporting the children alone but the mother and the next

man. That is why the man is holding back the money.

Others said, "You are worried about the next man," and "Another man might be there to take care of

your child and getting the money."

Feelings that a biological father's support obligations are attenuated when the mother is living with

another man may be fairly common among noncustodial fathers in all walks of life. Such feelings may

be even Ber in poor New York City communities such as Harlem and Brownsville, however, where

marriage rates are low, households split and re-form frequently, and poverty enforces a day-to-day

coping attitude toward survival. Some men's concerns about where their money was going had to do

with fears that the mothers were spending the money on drugs. Several men had faced this problem, with

different results. One man said the mother's drug use had caused him to discontinue payments:

She's on crack right now … the money I used to give her to get some Pampers and stuff

and I'd come back a little later on, no Pampers, she's not there and what not. That's

basically what made me stop going around there, you know.

Another encountered a similar situation and reacted differently. He called a city agency and initiated

proceedings to have four children, three of them his, taken out of the mother's custody. Because he was

not employed at the time, the children were placed in foster care. He later gained custody of one of his

children. At the time of the focus group interview, he was still trying to get custody of his two other

children as well as another child of the same mother by a different man. Another focus group participant

also had custody of his child as a result of the mother's drug problems. This man also had another child,

by a different woman, who lived with the mother's mother. In both these cases, the men had previously

been absent fathers making irregular contributions but had obtained direct custody when the mothers'

drug problems grew more severe.

When asked whether they thought women should be primarily responsible for taking care of children,

focus group participants generally disagreed and said that it should be 50-50. Although they were all

separated from at least one of their children, several reported providing substantial direct care for their

children. One man was providing child care while the mother worked. Others spoke with feeling of their

enjoyment of children, including taking care of them. (4 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

When asked what a father's responsibilities to his children should be, several stressed that money was

not the main thing and was in fact less important than spending time with them and teaching them

proper behavior. One man explained: "It takes time more than money. I have time to take with that. That

compensates more than money." Outside observations confirmed that this man did in fact spend a lot of

time with his children. He had also been making regular contributions until a recent job loss. Other men

were quick to support his point of view, with several stressing teaching, instilling respect, and religion as

areas of paternal responsibility that are as important as financial support.

The values expressed about fathers' responsibilities were far more uniform than the men's behavior, by

their own assessments and by outside confirmation in some cases, although gauging their actual

contributions requires some caution. When first asked, most claimed that they were making payments.

Upon closer questioning, it appeared that many of these initial claims were exaggerated. (Additional

information was available for the Brownsville group because the person who had recruited the

participants knew most of them personally.) The exaggerated claims about payments for child support

were generally associated with exaggerated claims about income. Most of those in the Brownsville

group reported some form of employment, but in many cases they were talking about jobs they no

longer held. Many of these men were unemployed or sporadically employed. Some members of the

Harlem groups reported regular income from the underground economy (referred to as "hustling" or

"scrambling"), but under closer questioning and the scrutiny of their peers, they appeared to be not very

successful in illegitimate endeavors either.

In fact, even the men's own reports of their contributions for their children contain many qualifiers, such

as "when I can." When pressed, most of those with children by more than one mother admitted to

contributing more to some children than to others. In some cases, this was because legal paternity and

child support had been established for one child but not for others. More often, it resulted from the fact

that there was a closer relationship with one mother than the other(s), either romantically or on the basis

of friendship and trust:

I don't see the first one because he is with his mother. She got married to some other guy

and they want to keep me out. The other one, I always see him all the time. I buy him


Whatever I can make I try and send to them, especially my daughter's mother because my

son's mother is remarried.

If I am not in the best of moods with their mothers, it does have an effect.

Some men also admitted fluctuations in support over time, related to their own shifting income levels

and the demands of the courts, as well as to the ages of the children, the state of their relationships with

the mothers, and the extent of their direct contacts with the children. Some had been involved in court

cases over support payments and visitation rights, though most had dealt with these disputes outside the

legal system. Only one man reported having been legally denied visitation. He was bitter that his (5 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

inability to earn a decent living had cut him off from his son:

She won't let me see him, won't open the door. Maybe when he gets older, he will want to

see me. Maybe if I get a good job, some sense will get into her. Maybe the courts will let

him see me.

Making and Having Money

The focus group participants from Harlem and Brownsville had quite limited ability to make child

support payments. Four of the 14 members of the Brownsville focus group could be confirmed as having

steady employment and making regular contributions to their children. As many as three other members

of that group may also have been contributing regularly. The others did not work regularly; several of

the men spent substantial portions of their sporadic income on drugs and alcohol.

Much of the discussion in these groups dealt with the fact that many of these men have difficulty

supporting even themselves. Four of them received public assistance in their own names. One of those

who was employed described his finances: $125 a week take-home pay, $65 a week for rent, plus

carfare, clothes, and food. But he expressed pride in the fact that he had held his job for over a year.

Some of the men's comments on their inability to support themselves and their children included:

You can't work for your child and not live too.

It ain't enough money for me to support her and support me.

If you cannot take care of yourself, you cannot take care of your kids.

Most of those who appeared to be making regular payments were working two jobs. Among those who

did not have steady employment, it appeared that several were being partially supported by women.

One, who was living with his child and the mother, was taking care of the child while the mother

worked, though he said the situation had been the reverse previously. Others were living with women on

public assistance, which they supplemented either through sporadic legitimate work or occasional street

hustles. There was some animated banter in the Harlem group about "pimping." They used this term to

describe accepting material support or taking money from women, not supervising prostitution. The tone

of the banter indicated that this practice is a recognized way of getting money, partly shameful and

partly to be boasted about, depending on the setting.

The other side of pimping, however, concerned the relationship between having money and being able to

attract and retain the interest of women. One described the situation as follows: "If a man is with a lady

… and he can't find a job … you know what happens to that guy? He wilters, folds up."

Another discussion centered on the relative emotional vulnerability of men and women. The group (6 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

agreed that men were more vulnerable and were prone to deep depression and suicide when relationships

that they cared about fell apart. One man, who had been married, told an extended story of how his

inability to support his family led the mother of his child to leave him and move out of the state. He said

that this had driven him to heavy drug use. He said:

My heart got touched, and it hurts. See, men go out there and flip. I was doing drugs. They

drug themselves to death, be ready to kill themselves.

The economic difficulties of some of the men were also apparent among those who spoke of getting

money by selling drugs and other forms of crime, which they referred to generically as "hustling." In

contrast to the usual portrayals of drug-dealing, the hustling experiences of the men who participated in

the focus groups had not led to quick fortunes. Hustling was for them a highly unreliable source of

income, attractive mainly in comparison to their poor opportunities for legitimate employment. Despite

some boasting about prowess in street hustles, it was readily apparent from the mens' appearance, the

evaluations of their peers, and their own statements that those who participated in the focus groups were

no more successful as hustlers than they were in the legitimate job market.

One man said that he was currently hustling and that "when I come off big, that's when I send something

to my ex-girl." At the same time, he admitted that his hustling income was insecure and that "at least

working's a steady check." Another hustler openly wanted to quit what he was doing, saying, "hopefully

I can leave this hustler gig and get a honest job, you know, 'cause what I do now … it's gonna run out."

The men saw substantial difficulties involved in the prospects of getting steady, decent jobs, however.

One said that hustling created problems between him and his girlfriend:

She didn't want me to be out in the street hustling, and it was something I wanted to do,

the only thing I really knew how to do to make money.

Another said that he had learned this from his family since adolescence:

I've been doing it from like, most of my family is in the business, like my uncle. I'm down,

you know, since about 16.

Not all of the men in the Harlem and Brownsville groups were involved in criminal lifestyles, but there

was a recognition in the discussions that many men in their communities lead lives that are cut off from

the mainstream. For example, in talking about possible programmatic initiatives, one man noted that

many men he knew could not get into various programs because they had never registered with Selective

Service. Other comments and data indicated that some were working "off the books" or under false

Social Security numbers, many were not working at all, some were involved with drugs and crime, and

some had no fixed address.

Both the men with substantial employment histories and those without spoke about their lack of access (7 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

to decent jobs and the underlying reasons for this. They mentioned low levels of education and the

instability of jobs they did find. Some complained of having learned skills that became outdated. The

most frequently mentioned problem, however, was racial discrimination in the job market. This came up

several times in the Harlem and Brownsville groups without being specifically elicited by the focus

group leaders:

The jobs is what's wrong. They hire you for two weeks, get your hopes up, squeeze in a

white boy. I don't want to go home and face her and the kids with no work. I don't want to

go to jail.

I see a little racism in the agencies, but I still go down.

I resented white loaders who got to be loadmasters. I felt I could be a loadmaster.

Understanding the Child Support System

These men had very little knowledge of the specific workings of the child support system. Those who

had been through the system, including at least five of the 31 men in the Harlem and Brownsville focus

groups, knew more than the others. These men tended to be older and to have more substantial

employment histories. Indeed, none of the younger men (in their late teens to early twenties) had ever

been in the system. Even those who had been in the system, however, knew very little about it.

Most of the men were unaware of the requirements for establishing legal paternity, for example. Several

men in one of the groups said that they were the legal fathers of their children because they had been

present at the birth and signed papers. Some of those with children by different mothers said that they

were legal fathers of one but not others, also on the basis of whether they had signed papers at the birth.

Then one of the group members informed the others, correctly and to their surprise and disbelief, that

this was not a sufficient basis for establishing legal paternity, saying that he had learned this in the

National Guard.

Members of this same group were also unaware of the highly accurate methods of blood-testing now

used in disputed paternity establishment cases. They thought that men with the same blood type were

equally likely to be the father of a child with a compatible type on the basis of tests. One said:

If I had one blood test and my best friend had the same blood type and she was fooling

around, who is to say he didn't do it too?

Another expressed the same erroneous belief that current tests are based only on blood type:

You have people that is no kin to you, have the same type of blood; that is not exact, they

cannot take you to court to produce some money. (8 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

When asked whether their children would be entitled to Social Security and benefits for military

dependents if they were not married but had established legal paternity, they all said that they thought

this should be the case but were not certain whether it was. (Legal paternity does confer these benefits

upon children born outside marriage.)

Several were also unaware of the existence of AFDC benefits for two-parent families (in the AFDC-U

program), even though New York State has had such a program for years, as well as a Home Relief

welfare program for poor families that do not qualify for AFDC. They thought that marriage

automatically entailed a cut-off of a woman's AFDC benefits: "Once you are married to them all legal,

the welfare cuts her off." Similarly: "The public assistance, a woman can't get it if she is with a man. She

can get it if they separate, or the sneak trip [that is, concealment of the relationship]." When one member

told the others that they and their children could get welfare if they all lived together, he encountered

expressions of disbelief. But an even more surprising aspect of the focus group discussions was the

revelation that several of the men who were in contact with their children and their children's mothers

did not know whether their children were receiving public assistance.

Even some of the men who had received court orders for child support were baffled at how the system

worked. One said he had been puzzled when his paycheck was garnisheed, until he realized that it was

the result of a child support action. He said they were "getting it out of my check. I couldn't figure it out.

I find out it is for the child support payment. That is the only thing they could take it out for." Another

focus group participant had the same experience with a deduction from his income tax return: "I was

supposed to get a check for $900, got back $127. I flipped."

One aspect of the child support system that the Harlem and Brownsville men did understand, however,

was the fact that court-mandated support payments to children on AFDC go primarily to reimburse the


Attitudes Toward the Child Support System

The men in the Harlem and Brownsville focus groups expressed a variety of negative attitudes toward

the current child support system, ranging from a generalized but uninformed suspicion among those who

had not experienced it directly to a much more specific set of grievances among those who had.

Most of these men had never had child support orders, despite the fact that all of them were noncustodial

fathers. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Some of the men had not established legal

paternity; not all of their children were enrolled in AFDC, which theoretically requires custodial parents

to cooperate with paternity and child support establishment procedures; several had made informal

arrangements with the mothers of their children; and several had very little income for the mothers to

seek. Three of 14 members of the Brownsville group and at least two of the 17 members of the Harlem

groups did have child support orders.

When asked why some men fail to establish paternity at all, they offered two sorts of answers. First, they (9 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

said that men may be "afraid of responsibility." For one focus group participant, that fear was clearly

related to the child support enforcement system. He said:

The first thing they want you to do is make sure that baby has your name on the birth

certificate. If anything happens, right, she can get some cream out of you. Legally, she can

say that I am the father.

Specific fears of the child support enforcement system, however, were not usually cited as the main

reason why men do not establish paternity.

Second, they maintained that the women did not want child support. One man stated that "women

nowadays, well, the ones I meet, they don't want your last name for the simple fact that they want to

control the child." Another said that he had filled out all the necessary papers for establishing paternity

and that the mother had told him she would file them but she never did. He did not discover this until

she disappeared on a drug binge and he found himself unable to get custody of the child. In view of the

low incomes of many of these men, it is perhaps not surprising that some women prefer not to share

parental rights with them, even at the expense of forfeiting child support claims.

Those who did have child support orders resented the whole process, and all felt overwhelmed by their

inability to make the required payments. Their resentments can be divided into two categories: (1) a

general feeling that the courts should not interfere in their families and (2) a more specific resentment of

the insensitivity of the system toward their precarious and shifting circumstances.

The generalized resentment appears to be simply a matter of not liking to submit to outside controls.

One man, the father of five children by three different mothers and a veteran of many child support

battles, was adamant in his dislike of the system. During a lengthy discussion of different ways in which

the system might be made more fair to men, he declared unequivocally:

I don't want the court in my life, they have no business messing with my relationship… . I

don't want the system to come up with a way to make me pay.

The self-interestedness of this position, however, was apparent to the other men in the group. When

asked whether they thought women would agree with their attitudes that the courts should not interfere,

they laughed and said "no."

When discussing their own experiences with the system, however, the men were more specific about

what they considered to be the ridiculous aspects of the way the system operates. They reported that the

system frequently put them in impossible situations, hampering rather than encouraging their efforts to

provide support, and that it provided very little incentive for them to cooperate. Those who had child

support orders said that they simply could not pay what was being asked. One complained:

They sent me a court order to pay like $600 a month. I don't even make that much every (10 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

two weeks, and I wasn't planning on paying something I don't have.

Another faced a different but related problem. He was married and wanted a divorce but felt he could

not get one because he could not afford the 17 percent of his income that he had been told would be

required (on the basis of the state's child support guidelines). All of those with support orders were

behind in their payments, with arrearages ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Besides feeling that they were simply being asked to pay too much, these men were particularly bitter

about what they viewed as the courts' insensitivity to their precarious circumstances. One complained:

"These agencies, they don't listen to you. All they want to know is 'How much?' and 'Give it up.'"

Another told of his unsuccessful attempts to get his support order adjusted when he went from a higherto

a lower-paying job:

I am making less money than the first time. I went and said: "Can you cut it down?" I

showed them papers: these are my expenses. All they said was, "you still have to give this

amount of money." … It could have been difficult to eat, and these people knew exactly

what I was making but they still wanted money.

Still another expressed his incredulity that he accumulated arrearages while incarcerated. He said: "The

court should know that you are locked up."

One man also said that he thought that the court process itself produced further unnecessary strain

between him and the mother of his child. They had negotiated an agreement between themselves, but he

felt the judge had prodded her to try to get more money out of him. He concluded, "The court wants you

to hate her so much." Another man agreed, saying:

The court system, in my opinion, is extreme, a bit too extreme. You can make a bond with

your wife for financial needs or whatever the case but the court system will double it.

Still another man protested that court-ordered child support created bad feelings on the part of his son:

My child should not have to grow up with something in the back of his mind: "Somebody

had to force dad to give me. If only he would have freely given."

These men generally felt that the demands of the system were entirely unrealistic, given their low levels

of income. Their experience of accumulating arrearages added to their sense of not being able to survive

financially. One man, who had a relatively stable history of employment and child support contributions

but had recently been unemployed, said in response to a question about what a child support program

should offer in the way of employment and training:

I have bills above my head. If I got a little job, my whole check can't even pay … all the

bills. So I would never be able to pay back unless I am talking about an extraordinary job. (11 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

These men were keenly aware of the fact that court-ordered child support payments to children on

AFDC do not go directly to the children. Most seemed to think that none of the money went to the

children; they did not seem aware of the provision for a $50 "disregard," which could increase their

children's benefits as a result of their contributions. One man clearly was discouraged from paying. He

said: "She wasn't seeing nothing. And my son wasn't seeing nothing. So I wasn't paying nothing."

Another complained: "It's not going to the child's mother, has to be going to the system." A third said:

Say welfare has been taking care of the child for the last three years until they caught up

with you; they caught up with you now. Your wife wouldn't see the money on the welfare

check … they are just getting their money back.

One of the focus group participants, however, thought the system not entirely unreasonable, saying:

I still have to send $50 a week to the court. They are not getting that $50 you know …

[but] … they are still getting because welfare is getting it. I don't really mind.

Other men talked about the fact that the welfare and child support system rules induced many couples to

conceal their relationship in order to be able to combine income from welfare and work. One described

this situation as:

She goes to the welfare: "My husband left me, I can't find him. Boom, he ran off and left

me." But he is still there. You know what welfare do? They put her back on public


A member of another group described this strategy in almost identical words:

The husband ain't never left, but the wife goes to the welfare and says that he has after 30

days and the welfare puts her back on.

Others nodded assent at the familiarity of this situation. It was unclear how many of them were doing

this or had done it, although all of them were living apart from at least one of their children. However,

they did not seem to think that men fail to establish paternity in the first place in order to be able to

combine welfare and work illegally. This was characterized as a strategy of women, to respond to the

unsteady support from men.

Improving the System

When asked about possible changes in the child support system to encourage their cooperation, the

men's opinions included some generally favorably to interventions being explored in the Parents' Fair

Share Demonstration. (12 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

In discussing the current system, they expressed some of their feelings about fairness. For example, one

discussion concerned what it costs to support children of different ages. One man said contributions

should be higher for older children:

I believe it is an age bracket thing. If you have a newborn baby, it is going to be cheaper

to take care of. As a baby gets older it costs more.

Another discussion concerned the setting of payment levels as a fixed percentage of income. Some

thought this completely unfair. One man complained:

When the money that I was giving previous to that great job was sufficient enough and

when I got more, suddenly I need more. Which is, like he said, totally unfair.

This opinion proved highly controversial, however, and provoked a long discussion. Some participants

supported this unfairness point of view and others agreed with a man who said: "If you are making more

money, you are supposed to give more to the child."

The men liked the idea of mediation, a service planned for Parents' Fair Share. They said that they had

been involved in misunderstandings with the mother of their children which might have been cleared up

by a third party, and that disagreements had been perpetuated because of anger when solutions could

have been found. One said: "I would be happy with the counselor part of it." Another said:

Any time you have someone that is neutral that is willing to explain things from a

different point of view, both mine and hers, it has to help because this person in the

middle might be able to tell me something I don't understand.

The notion of changing the child support system so that arrearages did not accumulate while the men

were taking part in a program received a solid endorsement. The men also responded favorably to the

possibility of being offered employment and job training. When asked what changes should be made in

the child support system, one man immediately replied: "I'd key in to the system and get people jobs,

help them out, on they feet, see what they do then."

Although the idea of getting good jobs clearly appealed to them, some also offered cautions about

training programs, based on their previous experiences. Several had already been in employment and

training programs, and most of these said they had been helped by such programs. Still, they continued

to face recurrent employment difficulties. Some said they had learned skills that had become outdated.

One of these said: "It depends on what you are going to be trained in, if you train in something that the

country needs." Another asked: "What is it going to lead to? You have to have a career, something that

you want to do."

Others pointed out that existing programs have difficulties recruiting and retaining clients, concluding

that the problems lay in the motivations of those who need the programs as well as in the effectiveness (13 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

of the programs. On the whole, however, they seemed to feel that, if the courts were going to demand

payments from them, they should also be given jobs. They also mentioned specific skills in which they

were interested. These included working with computers, auto mechanics, aviation mechanics,

refrigeration, printing, carpentry, electronics, cooking, and photography.

The Harlem and Brownsville men also offered some thoughts on what would make mediation and

employment services effective for them and those like them. These comments reflected their feelings of

being the victims of racial discrimination. Some said that they would feel more comfortable with

counselors and program staff who were black and male like themselves. One described a previous


A lot of counseling services that is here for us is not properly staffed. I went down for

family counseling. I am not racist. I have white friends … [but] … it is hard for a white

guy to understand my particular family structure.

Another commented similarly on the staffing of programs for them, saying: "If it just has white guys, it

may not work. If it just has women, it may not work." The men also noted that racial discrimination in

the labor market could make the acquisition of skills useless unless they could get hired to use those

skills. One man's curt response to the prospect of getting training was: "No jobs. What's the sense?"

They also mentioned other services they needed, including psychiatrists, mental health services, and

drug treatment. One man from Brownsville said he would like to be able to meet with successful men

who had grown up in areas like his:

In a lot of black neighborhoods, the drug dealer is the man, economic man. And there are

a lot of people who achieved big. Those who have high financial status or businesses or

whatever, I feel that [there should be] a special program where they could come back and

teach people like they do in Harlem and give them sufficient sense of individualism that

you can make an individual achievement.

[ Go To Contents ]

The Queens Group

Family Histories

As in the Harlem and Brownsville groups, many of the white men from Queens expressed B feelings for

their children and considerable regret at their physical and often emotional separation from them. The

one apparent exception was Frank,(7) father of a 20-year-old daughter, who had had only a brief and

casual relationship with the mother when his daughter was conceived:

It was like the weekend I was drafted into Vietnam. She got pregnant, she chose to keep (14 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

the child, not to abort it, and I respect her for it … I wasn't there for her in any way; I

wasn't in love with her or anything. I respect the mother, she lives within walking


In response to a question about whether his daughter knows that he is her father, he explained:

No. I give her [the mother] the respect of the choice since I had no feelings for her and I

wasn't there as far as financial or whatever. Until she chooses to say, "Yes, this is him" …

as far as I'm concerned, it's part of a thing of respecting her wishes. She just wishes me not

to say anything until she's ready herself.

Frank did not openly express regret about the situation, other than a shrug that seemed to indicate a

sense of water under the bridge.

All of the other men in the Queens group had more substantial relationships with the mothers of their

children and either had been married to them or had lived with them at some time, except for Ken, age

23, who maintained a close but no longer romantic relationship with the mother:

I was not married. Me and the mother had a good relationship; we still do as friends. I got

her pregnant at 19 and the family despises me now. I had no problems with drugs or

anything. I've been working. I'm unemployed now. The parents basically told her they

would disown her if she stayed with me. I didn't want that, but I've kept distance for two

years and she basically brings the kid to see me. We remain good friends; we know it's not

going to work out between us and she brings him over when she has a chance.

Five of the men had been married to the mothers of their children, and a sixth said he had been in a

common-law marriage. All had had substantial contact with their children during the children's early

years. One of these older men had since lost contact, but the others who had been married all still saw

their children on a regular, if not always harmonious, basis.

George and Tony, both age 38, said that their relationships with their children had improved since they

had broken up with the mothers. Both said they had been "out there running," meaning involved with

drugs, and that this had contributed to the breakup of their families. At the time of the focus group, Tony

was on methadone and George had been completely clean for some time. As they had withdrawn from

"running in the street," their relationships with their children had improved. George's 16-year-old son

was living with the mother's mother:

First eight years, I lived with her. When we broke up, her mother took care of the kid. We

were both [himself and his wife] getting high at the time. If you are running around, trying

to cop, you can't be doing right … are you going to hang out with your kid stoned? I don't

want to hang out with my kid when I'm stoned … [Now] I see him once a week;

sometimes once every two weeks. Like on Saturday and Sunday, mostly on Sunday. I pick (15 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

him up, we would have dinner with my mother, a family dinner … I get along with the

grandmother better now than when I was married.

Tony lived with his children for 10 years before splitting up with his wife:

I have two daughters, 14 and 13 years old … I got a dynamite relationship with my

daughters. The past three years before that, it wasn't. I was always on drugs, in and out of

the house. I didn't know how to be a parent, how to be a father. Being around kids got me

jumpy, jittering. I got nervous and mad.

Will, in contrast, had been close to his children when they were growing up but then went out of their

lives. Will was 49 and had three grown children. After 13 years of marriage, he began drinking too

much, split up with his wife, and subsequently lost contact with her and the children:

They are all living in Wisconsin and Iowa, so I don't get to see them much. I'm now

married a second time.

Hal, age 41, had an 18-year-old son whose mother he had divorced when the boy was three. He

attributed the breakup primarily to marital infidelity on his part. Since then, he had had minimal but

regular contact with his son. He saw him only twice a year, on Christmas and the boy's birthday. Hal

said he had made regular and substantial support payments for 15 years. Mickey, age 40 and on

methadone, had been married twice and had one daughter from each marriage. He was estranged from

the first child but very close to the second:

Like the first child, the 17-year-old, I see every couple of months. She doesn't want to be

bothered with me because Daddy is a dope fiend. I started out very, very close with the

little one. She is a gifted child. They say she is a genius. We sent letters to the special

schools. There is monthly support … I buy sneakers for her and buy clothes when I get

my checks the first of the month … forget it, I buy her anything. I spoil her because I'm

afraid of losing her like I lost my first daughter. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to have a

17-year-old daughter treat you like you're not her father. I am a dope fiend but I deserve to

be treated better. I rocked her to bed, I deserve to be treated better … I got a disease but I

was a kind, generous person … I would be devastated and I will go out of my mind if I

lose my second daughter.

The other men had never been married and varied in the extent of their attachments to their children.

Bill, 24, also said that he had gotten closer to his three-year-old daughter recently since getting on

methadone. He had been living with the mother when she became pregnant but:

The reason we never stayed together, I was locked up when the baby was born. I got out

four months later. When I came out, she didn't want me there. So, for like the first year, I

didn't bother with either one of them. I started to recently, a year ago. They needed (16 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

money. When I cleaned up, when I got on the methadone program, I started seeing them. I

got a real job. I wanted my daughter in my life. I tried to see my daughter as much as I

could, but they are going to be moving out to Long Island this summer.

Bill said he had seen the child at least twice a month over the past year.

Stan, 27, had at first lived with the mother of his seven-year-old daughter and still maintained regular

contact with the child, though he did not get along well with the mother:

If I want to take her out for weekends, we are pretty cool. She will let me take her out. I

get to see my kid but not as much as I can. If she [the mother] is mad, she screws me up. If

I make plans, she don't be home or . . . I call the house and there won't be no answer.

Two of the other unmarried men had lived with their children and the mothers at first but had only

sporadic contact since breaking up with the mothers. Rick, 29, said his wife had gotten involved with

another man two years before, when his son was three. Since then, he had only seen the boy at

Christmas and on the child's birthday. Sal, 39, had a very bitter breakup with his common-law wife. He

had not seen his 13-year-old son in five years and had completely lost touch for the past two years. He

reported missing his son intensely.


Most of the men in the Queens group had grown up with their fathers in the home. Only Mickey and

George said that they had grown up without their fathers. George said he did not think he had been

affected by it "one way or the other," but Mickey, who did know his father, was intensely bitter toward

the man and his refusal ever to give Mickey credit for any positive accomplishment. Sal, like Mickey,

was very bitter that his father never gave him credit when he performed well in school or sports. In

discussing their relationships with their fathers, the other men revealed a variety of hostile and

ambivalent attitudes toward them, despite the fact that their fathers had been present. Tony said:

Just the way his generation, how they were brought up. Well, my father may eat, sleep, go

to work, that's it. They didn't know what the family thing was. All they knew was holiday,

Christmas, Thanksgiving. Just once a year to get close to one another. Just because

Christmas is coming, everybody is happy now. It should be like that every day.

The other men then started nodding agreement about the distance of their fathers. Hal was the only one

who said he had a warm relationship with his father: "Not to interrupt you … we were not just father and

son, we were friends." After Hal spoke about his friendship with his father, Mickey said: "That's a very

rare thing." Several of the others nodded agreement.

When asked what kinds of relationships they would like to have with their children, the men talked

about their shame at the some of the mistakes they had made, their desire just to see the children, and (17 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

their feelings that fathers should be teachers.

As noted earlier, George and Tony felt guilty about having been involved with drugs while their children

were born. Even though none of these men were currently intravenous (IV) drug users, sometimes their

children still heard negative things about them from others. Tony had been in prison:

It is like a Peyton Place in certain neighborhoods … I'd rather tell them myself. If my

daughter asked me, what is your career, I'd say I was a tractor-trailer driver … before that,

I went away. I did something wrong. I told her I was in prison.

Mickey also spoke very emotionally about having to explain to his adored younger daughter, then 8

years old, about why he had been in the hospital so often:

She thought I was working in the hospital. I was in detox every couple of months. Finally,

I broke down and cried that Daddy has a problem.

Others reported much more positive experiences of being with their children, sometimes more so in the

recent past than while they were breaking up with the mothers. Stan said:

You have to take your kid out, get close to your kid. You take him to the movies,

whatever, and play with them, stuff like that, brings you close to the kid. You don't get to

see him, try to make up for all the days that you miss.

Tony said he wanted to "bring up my daughter, teach right from wrong." Sal said he was upset at being

separated from his son because the boy especially needed a father during his teenage years:

I miss, like, playing, teaching him how to play baseball and things like that. He is growing

up. This is the time he needs a man, not a woman, telling him what's right, what's wrong.

At that age, they are so mixed up, they need both.

Some men also talked about the obstacles they faced trying to get close to their children. Sal, Will, and

Hal had all lost contact almost entirely after early bonding with their children. George said that when he

has little money, it interferes with his relationship with his 16-year-old son:

I see him, to try to have quality time. I notice when I am not doing too good, I'm out of

work and things are rough with me moneywise … it puts a little cramp on the relationship.

It shouldn't, but I'm down on myself.

Q: Does the kid know that or does it come from the mother?

George: I think he knows that. A couple of times, I tell him for the week he was out of

school, that my unemployment check didn't come. I wanted to take him to the movies (18 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

when he was out of school during the daytime, and I couldn't do it.

Stan said his child's mother sometimes blocks his visits and that she gets disappointed when he has

nothing to contribute.

Some of the men talked about the problem of other men coming between them and their children. Ken

said that, despite his warm current relationship with the mother:

The only thing that is going to bother me in the future is if she moves in with somebody

else or marries somebody else. That's the only thing that scares me about that. If she finds

somebody else and gets married, that guy is going to be raising my kid.

Rick had been through that experience and subsequently had had very little contact with his daughter:

Like the first three years of life she knows me as Daddy. Another guy moved in and he

was there as daddy … We [he and the mother] didn't get along. She found somebody else

she was interested in and it seemed like that's what she wanted. She didn't think I was

good enough for her.

Income and Child Support

Despite the fact that many of the men in the Queens group had experienced personal problems, most of

them had substantial work histories. Although most of them were out of work at the time of the focus

group, only Will, Sal, and Bill were not looking for work. Will had been disabled for a dozen years and

was supported by his second wife. Sal was living with his family and on methadone. Bill had been

employed until a recent injury and was receiving public assistance in his own name.

Many of the others had recently been laid off. They were collecting unemployment and seeking work.

The fact that a stipend was offered for participation in the focus group may explain, in part, why a high

proportion of the participants were out of work. Also, the kinds of jobs these men had held in the past

were primarily in manual labor and construction, which have recently experienced severe contraction in

New York City. The neighborhoods in Queens where these men live are currently full of unemployed

blue-collar workers.

Although most of the men were in the labor force, the stability and quality of their employment varied.

Mickey, Tony, and Frank told similar stories of having been steady workers for many years, despite

having drug problems. Frank said:

I got laid off almost a year ago. That particular job I worked at 18 months straight, 7 days

a week, 60 to 65 hours. It was in a restaurant/bar; I did prep work … I had worked for 19

years. I am registered with Social Security for 18 or 19 years worth of paying into the

system. I worked all my life; it's only been the last year that I was out of work. The last (19 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

time was 18 years ago when I came out of the service. I was a functional addict all my


Despite his steady employment, Frank had never contributed child support because the child was never

publicly acknowledged as his and did not even know he was the father.

Tony had lived with his children for 10 years, before going to prison for three. He supported them while

he lived with them and had made regular voluntary contributions since his release. He was one of the

few whose children had been on welfare, though that was only while he was incarcerated. He said:

My problem was I thought I loved the girl but I didn't. [But] I got pregnant with her twice.

I'm not going to say "the hell with the kids, the hell with that girl."

Mickey had also been steadily employed for years, despite drug problems that sometimes drove him into

detox. He made regular contributions to his younger daughter, though not to his older daughter, who did

not want to have anything to do with him.

Another of the older men, Hal, had also been a steady worker. He had worked for a construction

company for many years. He derived a good income from that, and he also had made money on the side

from occasional robberies. He had once done prison time but claimed to have paid $800 a month in

voluntary child support steadily for the past 15 years. Even when he was incarcerated, he had hidden

enough money to provide for his son.

Several of these men said that they were in the labor market, were usually employed, and made

voluntary contributions to their children when they were working. Most of them described similar

relationships with their children's mothers over money: The women had never taken them to court for

child support payments and basically knew what and when they could contribute or not. Stan was

working at a job that was "off the books":

With a kid, you want to avoid problems like that. You love the kids as much as she does.

If you and her don't get along, fine; your kid is something different. You want to try to

look out for the kid and give him the best of everything. You don't want to be dragged

through the court just to do the right thing. She [the mother] understood. I mean, like a

couple of times at Christmas she was really upset. I seen it on her face but she didn't come

out and say anything. She pretty much understands. She knows what I have and don't

have. At this point, I'm trying to do it on my own, without her asking.

George's son had been living with his grandmother since his parents split up:

Her mother took care of the kid. At that time, I wasn't working or nothing. Anyhow, she

didn't get any money from me. Once I cleaned up and started working again, I bought him

his clothes and gave her money. Up until a month and a half ago. I just lost my job again, (20 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

just last month. He just got braces a couple months ago. I was giving money for that

besides. When I see him, I give him $10, $20. I didn't give her nothing for January;

February it will be the same thing. She never asked me for money anyhow. Never asked

me for money, so I always gave it on my own.

Ken only saw his child when the mother brought him over secretly because the mother's family did not

want her to see him:

She is still at home and her parents are supporting the bill. She is still in school and going

to college. She understands I am collecting unemployment. I haven't given them

[anything] the past three months.

He said he had been contributing about $25 a week voluntarily when he was employed:

Basically, I had the money to give to them, I gave to them. I was working at my last job

two years. I got laid off in November. The work was slow. I worked in the binding

business. I became a manager. As far as the kid, money was never an issue because it was

another issue between us. I don't have a sad story like these guys. I still get along with her.

Ken said he had no drug problems. His main problems were youth, a slow economy, and having fathered

a child to a young, middle-class girl whose parents hated him.

Two other men in their twenties, Bill and Rick, were in more troubled circumstances. Bill had no contact

with his child at first, having been in jail when the boy was born, and then began making small weekly

contributions when he could:

The first time, I was in jail when the baby was born and I think her family talked to her.

They didn't want me as part of her life. When I got out, I started working. I gave the

money, you know. And then it stopped because, like I said, they didn't want me near the

kid and I started to get high again. I started to [give money] recently, a year ago. They

needed money. If I was working, I would give them money. If I was not working, I didn't.

I gave what I could. She hasn't taken me to court or nothing. If they need something, I

give them what I can. And, like I said, I'm not getting high either, so I have money.

He said he had contributed $50 to $70 a week when he was working and that he had worked over seven

months out of the past year, although he had been receiving public assistance since an injury a few

months before.

Rick had had very minimal contact with his son since the mother left him for another man. Although

Rick had never been involved with IV drugs, he said that using other drugs and alcohol had caused him

to lose several jobs. He only saw his son or gave him anything on Christmas and birthdays. (21 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

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Only four men in the Queens group had ever had any contact with courts over child support issues. All

four of them had been married. George said his wife had tried to take him to court at first, but "she

couldn't get anything anyhow because I wasn't working." It is unclear how the case was disposed.

Subsequently, the mother, who had her own problems, relinquished custody to her mother, who never

sought money from George. Mickey paid child support to his first wife in an agreement worked out in

court during the divorce:

My first marriage, my wife was on welfare and I was unemployed. I was facing prison, so

I guess she more or less felt sorry for me. The judge felt like, well, we got along: "You

come up with your own conclusion of what you think," and she said, "$20 a week."

He paid that for two years, but that had been many years before. Currently, he only gave occasional

presents to his older daughter and concentrated his resources on the younger one.

Only Tony and Will had ever faced orders to pay child support arrears. Will had not seen his first wife or

children in several years, when a joint bank account that he maintained with his second wife was

unexpectedly garnisheed. At that point, Will had been disabled for some time and had no income of his

own. The money all came from his wife's earnings. The incident angered his current wife, but they

subsequently took his name off the account and had no further incidents. Tony's wife had received

welfare when he was incarcerated:

When I was doing time, there was no other means for my wife with the kid. At the time, to

get support was to go to welfare, and that's what she did. A certain amount of time went

by, 10 years or better, I got the letter from welfare stating that I owed them so much

money. I never answered their letter. It was a couple of thousand dollars and until today I

haven't gotten bothered yet. When it does happen, I don't know what to do.

It appears that the main reason Tony has escaped further legal action to recover welfare payments is that

he "never had a job on the books so far."

Tony's case reveals a crucial part of the context of these men's lives that explains why, even though they

are noncustodial fathers and many have substantial work histories, most have not been taken to court for

child support. Only Mickey's and Tony's children have ever received Aid to Families with Dependent

Children (AFDC). Without the prompting of the welfare system, the decision to initiate court

proceedings was left to the mothers of their children, and in most cases the couples arrived at their own

informal arrangements for support payments.

Of course, it is likely that the women would tell different stories about how satisfactory they found these

informal arrangements. Still, the fact that most of these 11 cases have never been in court is striking. The

men's contentions that the women knew what they were capable of paying and were not interested in

pursuing them when they could not pay seems plausible, as does the notion that when some of them

were "running," the women and their families wanted to have as little to do with them as possible. (22 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Knowledge of and Attitudes Toward the Child Support Enforcement System

The men in the Queens focus group had only hazy and incomplete knowledge of how legal paternity is

established outside of marriage in New York City. Because many of them had been married, they had

never been concerned about this. Some of the unmarried men, however, thought that they had

established legal paternity, although they may not have done so. Both Sal and Ken expressed confusion

on this issue, in response to questions about whether they were the legal fathers of their children:

Sal: I believe so … I took her to the hospital, I signed papers, I paid for the hospital bill

and she claimed I was the father.

Q: You have to go to court and go through a separate hearing for that.

Sal: Then I guess I'm not the legal father.

Ken: No, the baby has my name [but I didn't go to court].

Q: So you thought you had legal paternity?

Ken: Until you said something, yes … Once my name was on the birth certificate, I

thought it was mine.

Since it is not clear exactly what papers Sal and Ken signed, it is not certain whether they were or were

not legally the fathers of their children. Once the question was raised, however, they were thrown into


The paternity status of the other unmarried men was not clear. It seems highly unlikely that either Bill or

Frank had established legal paternity, since Bill was incarcerated during the birth and Frank was in

Vietnam. The paternity statuses of Stan and Rick are unclear.

If none of these men had in fact established legal paternity, this would help to explain, along with the

low incidence of welfare receipt among their children and the mothers, their lack of contact with the

child support enforcement system. In contrast to the Harlem and Brownsville focus group members,

most of these men were aware of the high degree of accuracy of blood tests for establishing paternity.

Only Bill and Rick thought that blood tests were of doubtful accuracy. Bill mistakenly thought the tests

only matched blood types of parents and children. The rest of them correctly stated that the tests are 90

percent accurate or better.

The men also said they were aware of a number of benefits available to the children of unmarried

fathers, such as private health insurance through employers and Social Security death benefits. They

were not, however, aware that benefits from the military can go to the children of unmarried fathers. (23 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Discussion of benefits legally available to the children of unmarried fathers triggered a great deal of

interest among the unmarried fathers in the group. First jolted by the knowledge that they may not have

been legal fathers when they thought they were, and then stimulated by finding out about these various

benefits, they began asking about and discussing the steps needed to establish legal paternity. A spin-off

discussion then addressed the difference between child support and alimony. Tony apparently was not

clear about the difference until Hal explained it to him:

Tony: She gets remarried, she can charge me for child support?

Hal: My last wife had a daughter [from her former husband]. Here's the deal. The husband

was paying her alimony and child support for the daughter. When me and her got married,

her alimony stopped but the child support continued.

At this explanation, others in the group nodded and sighed in what seemed to be both agreement and

relief. Stan expressed his sense that this is just: "Child support I don't mind."

Two of the men who had had limited contact with the child support enforcement system, Will and Tony,

were bewildered by its operations. Will had been completely surprised when his checking account with

his current wife had been garnisheed, since he had had no contact with his former wife in years. Tony

had heard from the system twice, both times after his wife's welfare had been terminated. The second

time, years later, the amount of child support arrears had tripled:

I seen that letter, I say, $6,000, what are they crazy? They should have the wrong guy.

Reactions to Program Ideas

The final discussion with the Queens group concerned possible elements of a program for noncustodial

fathers. They were told that the focus group was being held to help in setting up a program for

noncustodial fathers especially to induce fathers to pay regular child support through the formal system.

They were asked their reactions to employment and training, a peer support group, and mediation. They

responded most strongly by far to the possibility of employment and training:

Q: Some of you guys have grown children now, [but] thinking about the young guy who

might want to get into the program, what would make him want to sign up?

Sal: To better himself.

Frank: To better the child.

Sal: If he betters himself, he is going to better the welfare of the child. (24 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Q: Employment and training, do you think that would tempt you guys? If they say, "We're

going to train you to get your GED or get a job or get a better job than you have now"?

Hal: That goes without saying. Anyone out of work would be happy to go along with that


Ken: If I were to get a nice decent-paying job, I would go through the court system. I

would think guys would go through the court system and not mind paying the child


Sal: I think that if they come up with the starting salary of $10 an hour or more. Especially

if they have the chance … to guarantee a certain level of pay, they can afford it to pay his

own apartment and still send his child $50 a week or something.

Stan: The kid is going to benefit and the father is going to benefit. He is going to help


When asked about what kinds of training or jobs they would be interested in, they tended to name things

that they had once done or tried, their best past opportunities. Tony had once had a successful

contracting business, painting and moving, and would like to return to that. Sal once worked with

racehorses and wanted to return to that, though he was also interested in learning about computers. Tony

wanted to resume work as truck driver. Stan had taken college courses and would like financial aid to

continue in higher education. Hal said he is currently in a training course to become an Emergency

Medical Technician. Two of the younger men mentioned fields they were interested in but where they

had no previous experience. Bill was interested in computers and Ken in "accounting … or something

with figures."

Their reactions to possible peer group support meetings and mediation were much more equivocal. Hal

spontaneously mentioned the possibility of parent education: "I think, for a single parent, how to relate

and deal, you know, with your child." Others, however, were more leery of the notion of a support


Tony: That's my problem. I wouldn't want to talk about my family affairs … You have to

be honest if you are going to be in a group. You are going to come into the group and you

have got to talk about a female or what you have done with her or whatever … if you are

not going to say anything, don't waste your time, and leave.

Ken differed:

Push comes to shove, we all have something in common in a way. Nobody in this room is

going to see the people we're talking about. It's basically for support. I can open up … (25 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Q: So you would feel positive about that?

Ken: Yes.

Sal and Tony compared this idea to their experience with the group therapy they had received in

connection with their past drug problems. Tony said he had just learned how to say what was expected

in the group, but Sal said that he had eventually opened up and that the experience had been helpful. He

cautioned that it took a long time.

In response to the possibility of having mediation available to fathers like them, Ken said it might be a

good idea, but, in his case, "thing is, that would open a can of worms." He had no hopes of establishing

communication with the family of the mother of his child. Mickey talked about a priest in his

neighborhood who did this kind of work, and others began nodding as that example made the idea clear

to them. However, no one spoke out strongly and positively for mediation.

After the group broke up, several members provided further evidence of their interest in employment

and training by coming up to the interviewer and asking if they could enroll in the program if it came to

their area, specifically mentioning their interest in jobs.

[ Go To Contents ]

Implications for Policy and Parents' Fair Share

These New York City interviews suggest important challenges, possibly formidable ones, for the

Parents' Fair Share Demonstration. Many of the men who shared their experiences and opinions were

highly disadvantaged. They represented a group that has not been effectively incorporated into the child

support enforcement system. Although negative attitudes and behaviors conforming to popular

stereotypes of absent and nonsupporting fathers are readily apparent among the 42 men who

participated, so is a much richer context. Many had B, positive feelings for their children and spoke of

multiple frustrations they have encountered in trying to support and care for them. In part, their

inabilities to fulfill their impulses to be responsible fathers are rooted in their own behavior, such as use

of alcohol and drugs and multiple, careless sexual entanglements. Other barriers to adequate fathering,

however, are rooted in the structure of the labor market, racial discrimination, inadequate urban

education, and contradictory, bureaucratic, and insensitive aspects of the child support system itself.

The labor market difficulties of the men interviewed, including unemployment, underemployment, and

nonparticipation in the labor force, present policymakers and program designers with both the greatest

difficulty and the greatest opportunity. Many of these men, including those with the Best and weakest

employment histories, are barely able to support a family by themselves, even when they are living with

their children. When they are separated from their children, and thus called upon to support more than

one household, they are often overwhelmed. Given the abundance of paternal feeling expressed in the

focus groups, programs that could upgrade their employment experiences would seem to have (26 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

considerable potential for increasing their levels of child support, particularly if employment services are

explicitly tied to child support enforcement.

There are broad similarities among the groups from all three communities. Most of the men interviewed

from all three places are deeply concerned about issues of fatherhood. They care about their children;

they suffer from separation from them; and they are often bewildered about how to deal with being

noncustodial fathers. In addition, they are all in a precarious position in the labor market. Although the

white men from Queens have more substantial work histories than their African-American counterparts

in Harlem and Brownsville, they are still threatened with being unable to adapt to a changing labor

market. They are increasingly unsure of their ability to support not just their children but themselves.

The need for education in the workings of the child support system how to establish paternity, the

resulting benefits for children, how the system works in practice is also apparent among all the focus

groups conducted in New York City. Besides educating the men about the system, there also appears to

be a need to educate the system about men such as these. The inflexibility of child support agency

responses to their precarious and changing employment situations discourages these men from

cooperating with the system.

A final similarity across all these groups is that a substantial proportion of these men have had serious

problems with alcohol and substance abuse that have interfered with their ability to support their

children and themselves. In the absence of treatment or counseling to deal with these problems where

they exist, it is difficult to see how other services such as job training or mediation could be effective.

Beyond these similarities, the men in the Queens, Harlem, and Brownsville groups present distinct

demographic profiles that suggest the broad range of circumstances and issues that are likely to be

encountered in designing and operating programs for noncustodial fathers. The labor market difficulties

of the African-American men are more severe than those of their white counterparts. The African-

American men report suffering from racism in the labor market as well as from lack of education and

skills. Since several have not had recent, steady work, they also lack the experience that counts strongly

with employers of adult men.

Besides having Ber work histories than their peers from Harlem and Brownsville, the Queens men had a

higher rate of marriage. Men who have been married have automatically established paternity, thus

dispensing with one major barrier to incorporating noncustodial fathers into the child support system.

Still, a number of the white men were unmarried and apparently had not established legal paternity. The

distance between them and the child support system was entirely comparable to that of their minority


Another factor differentiating the African-American noncustodial fathers interviewed from the white

fathers is the economic level of the communities in which they and the mothers of their children live.

AFDC enrollment levels are much lower in the working-class, white neighborhoods of Queens than in

Brownsville or Harlem. Only two of the white men reported that their children had been on AFDC, and (27 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

in both those cases the duration of enrollment appears to have been fairly brief.

This raises the question of whether programmatic interventions for noncustodial fathers should be driven

entirely by the social goal of offsetting AFDC expenditures. In many respects, except for costing

taxpayers money, the men whose children were not receiving public assistance appear to be appropriate

candidates for programmatic intervention: they have troubled personal histories, they have problems in

the labor market, they care for their children, and they often provide support when they can. Their

financial and emotional support for their children is profoundly affected by their employment problems,

and they have personal and social needs that influence their ability to be effective parents.

The discussion of disincentives to marry in the Harlem and Brownsville groups suggests that combining

AFDC and "off the books" employment may be more widespread in communities where employment

rates are low and AFDC enrollment levels are high. In such situations, the issue of uncovering "off the

books" jobs may be a salient one for programmatic intervention. The men from Harlem and Brownsville

were keenly aware that payments to children on AFDC do relatively little to improve the children's

welfare. Thus, efforts to explain the $50 "disregard" (money passed through from child support

payments by noncustodial parents to custodial parents on AFDC) might help, and expanding the

disregard might help even more.

None of these community differences are absolute: employment, marriage, and AFDC enrollment all

vary within as well as across these groups. All these differences, whether within or between groups,

present distinctive challenges for progammatic intervention to increase involvement in the child support

system. To the extent that programs serve particular communities, however, sensitivity to the specific

needs within each community could heighten program effectiveness.

[ Go To Contents ]

Selected Background Reading

Everett, J. "An Examination of Child Support Enforcement Issues." In H. McAdoo and J. T. M. Parham,

eds., Services to Young Families: Program Review and Policy Recommendations. Washington, D.C.:

American Public Welfare Association, 1985.

Stack, C. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Stafford, W. Closed Labor Markets: Underrepresentation of Blacks, Hispanics, and Women in New

York City. New York: Community Service Society, 1985.

Sullivan, M. "Absent Fathers in the Inner City." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social

Science 501 (1989): 48-58. (28 of 29)8/25/2005 12:47:10 PM

Caring and Paying: What Fathers and Mothers Say About Child Support: Noncustodial Fathers' Attitudes and Behaviors

Sullivan, M. Getting Paid: Youth Crime and Work in the Inner City. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University

Press, 1989.

Sullivan, M. Patterns of AFDC Use in a Comparative Ethnographic Study of Young Fathers and Their

Children in Three Low-Income Neighborhoods. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and

Human Services, 1990.

Testa, M., et al. "Employment and Marriage Among Inner-City Fathers." Annals of the American

Academy of Political and Social Science 501 (1989): 79-91.


7. The names used in this section and in the remainder of the report are fictitious, and some of the

details of the parents' lives have been changed to protect their privacy.