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Deadbeat Dad Contest Bad for Kids

On Oct. 1, Michigan launched a new crackdown on "deadbeats"— noncustodial parents who are behind on paying child support. The overwhelmingly majority of "deadbeats" are dads.

Custodial parents cheered; father’s rights groups objected. Children were caught in between. But Attorney General Mike Cox doesn’t seem concerned about keeping children as non-combatants in the war between their parents.

In conjunction with the website PayKids, a site Cox established to track down deadbeats, Cox announced a contest in which children are to draw pictures "that clearly convey the message of encouraging the payment of child support."

The contest’s prize: "The first 250 submissions will receive a $10 gift certificate to Domino's Pizza….And, the winner, will have their rendering reproduced into a billboard in a prominent location…"

The contest encourages custodial parents— who, it should be noted, are overwhelmingly mothers — to discuss the issue with children and assist "in crafting the message and visual representation."

Radio host and fathers' rights activist Glenn Sacks comments, "[C]ustodial mothers are encouraged to coach their children to make designs critical of noncustodial parents behind on child support. And it doesn't take much imagination to figure out which noncustodial father many mothers will be encouraging their children to denounce."

Richard Farr, founder of the family oriented Krights Radio, asks, "Are kids expected to draw pictures of so-called ‘deadbeat dads’ going to jail?….This contest and the billboards [currently] dotting the Michigan landscape with imagery of jails, handcuffs and conviction send a scary message to young children. The contest should be called off immediately."

When Mike Cox took office in January 2003, he vowed to crack down on "deadbeats" and established a Child Support Division. Prior to this, the Attorney General's office assumed no direct jurisdiction over the issue.

With aggressive enforcement, the question of "when does it go too far" naturally arises. With some voices calling for government to withdraw from family matters altogether, Cox seems poised to become a poster boy for government’s reckless disregard for children’s welfare.

A child is half mother, half father. What emotional impact does it have on children when a government official urges them to denounce half of who they are? How will it impact a child’s relationship with a noncustodial parent when his or her denunciation is posted for the world to see? And if Cox lives up to the threat posed by the handcuffs portrayed on billboards — if he throws a "deadbeat" parent in jail--will the child live forever with a terrible guilt for having participated in that process?

When a divorce lands in court, children should be insulated as much as possible from adult decisions like alimony and support payments. They should not be bribed with pizzas into becoming part of a legal enforcement process against one parent.

Fathers' rights advocates quickly responded to the contest by directing outrage toward Domino’s Pizza, the contest’s corporate sponsor. Krights Radio spearheaded a boycott campaign; one father suggested the contest slogan "I sold my dad for a Domino’s Pizza."

Domino’s Pizza responded with equal speed to the complaints that were pouring in. Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications, informed Farr, "Domino's consumer web site, now contains an open letter to all Domino's customers, letting them know what happened…It can be found on dominos.com through the weekend [10/10]."

McIntyre explained, "We were not informed about this contest in advance, nor did we endorse use of our company name in conjunction with it. We are…incensed that this was done without our prior knowledge or consent….We have asked the Attorney General to remove our brand name in association with this contest, and have let him know that we are working actively to distance the good name of Domino's Pizza from this program."

Calling Domino’s withdrawal "an unprecedented move by a major international corporation," Farr expressed "respect" for the company.

Nevertheless, he believes it is still "confused concerning issues of the child support enforcement industry."

If so, the confusion is understandable. Government agencies have conducted a concerted and nationwide campaign against "deadbeat dads," which has voiced only one side of the issue.

Consider Michigan’s PayKids site. On the right is a photo of smiling children; on the left, a list of "most wanted" deadbeat dads with a changing photograph. (Although the word "parent" is used, only men seem to be listed as "Wanted" or "Captured"; in numerous visits, only men’s photos were displayed.) In between the two is the photo of a smiling, hugging mother.

The nonprofit PayKids Foundation was created by Cox in order to co-ordinate a public awareness campaign about unpaid child support. But Farr believes the whole PayKids initiative is based on "a false premise and erroneous information."

For example, the top five "Most Wanted" are listed as owing from $224,000 to $40,000 thousand in unpaid support. But Farr points to a Michigan Family Independence Agency study that "showed 87 percent of arrearages are owed by those earning less than $10,000 a year." He claims "that most parents who don't pay child support are deadbroke, not deadbeat."

Wherever truth lies between these polar opposite views, it is difficult to see how encouraging children to turn against their parents is a proper government function.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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