Child-Support Laws: A Boon for Gold Diggers?

Experts say that flaws in the system punish poor parents and motivate others to have kids for money.

Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images); Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images); Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

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Cathy Middleton-Lewis, an attorney specializing in child-support cases, expressed similar concerns regarding rigid enforcement that penalizes poorer parents. When asked what she most wanted Americans to know about the current child-support system, Middleton-Lewis told The Root, “In my opinion it’s the biggest economic problem facing single parents today — as big as the Recession is — and yet not a lot of information is out there on how to deal with it.” She highlighted a number of problems in the broken system. While Felder focused on New York’s child-support calculation formula, Middleton-Lewis cited the Bradley Amendment.

The federal amendment was implemented in 1986 to help custodial parents more easily collect back child support from a delinquent ex. While there have been Bradley success stories, it is also blamed for helping to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. The amount of overdue support owed is virtually impossible to decrease or reset for any reason. As a testament to the draconian enforcement of the policy, prisoner of war Bobby Sherrill was arrested the night after his return to America for failure to pay child support during his captivity in Iraq. Similarly, Clarence Brandley, who was wrongfully convicted of a racially charged murder in Texas and eventually released after years on death row, discovered that he owed $50,000 in back child support that had accrued during his time in prison.

“I had a case like that in Brooklyn where my client fell gravely ill and was hospitalized, and the arrears accrued,” said Middleton-Lewis. According to Middleton-Lewis, before the Bradley Amendment, decisions for handling such cases were left to the discretion of a judge.

But also exacerbating the system are adults who try to abuse it. When asked if she believes there are people who have children for financial reasons, Middleton-Lewis replied, “The reality is yes — unequivocally, yes.” Middleton-Lewis, the author of a book ironically titled Girl Get That Child Support: Seeking Child Support Doesn’t Make You a Gold Digger, added that this type of behavior is not limited to the 1 percent. “In certain distressed communities, someone working for the NYPD or New York Transit is a moneyed person.” She explained that she has heard of individuals in these professions being sought out as fathers because their financial situation is viewed as stable.

Child Support Versus Parental Support

Felder agreed with Middleton-Lewis that there are people who have children with wealthier individuals for financial reasons. “I represent a woman who had kids by two separate actors. It’s how she supports herself,” he said. But unlike Middleton-Lewis, Felder doesn’t consider it an ethical issue but a philosophical one. “It’s absolutely true that if you have a baby by an athlete or a celebrity, you can pretty much hit a homerun as far as support is concerned.”

When asked if he thinks having a child for financial reasons is “right,” he replied, “I don’t know what ‘right’ is. That’s a question you and I should talk about over a cup of tea. Who knows?” Later he added, “It’s human nature. It’s like [the song lyric from the musical] Evita, ‘I want a little bit of excess.’ So what? A little bit of excess doesn’t hurt anyone.” He concluded that celebrities can afford it. “They get paid in telephone numbers.”

One of Felder’s objections to restrictions on how a custodial parent can spend income designated as child support isn’t a legal one but a moral one. “Why should he [the child] feel like living with the father is like the lap of luxury and going to the mother is like being with a poor relative?” But he went on to explain that his larger objection is that trying to supervise how an adult spends money would constitute a headache for the parents, the lawyers and the court.

To his point, New York State does not permit a receipt-oversight process in child-support proceedings. “Because the law [in New York] says you can’t demand an accounting of the money once you get money for child support unless you can show gross negligence, like a kid has no sneakers or holes in his shoes, but generally a mother gets the money, and she can do whatever she wants with it.”

Which is precisely what irks many, including Middleton-Lewis. While she represents women who are just trying to receive enough support to care for their children, the media are filled with stories of women and men receiving tens of thousands of dollars a month for a child, money that few believe is being spent on the child alone. 

She said that no parent needs tens of thousands of dollars a month to care for a child. “You know there is no scenario of child rearing you can dream of — even the most upscale child — that would require the utilization of $40,000 a month for the support of the child,” she said. “No child eats that much. No private school charges $40,000 a month. You’ve got to be realistic as to what a child actually needs.”