I saw my ex-husband in court last week. It was the first time I had seen him in longer than I could remember; the exact date lost in an 8-inch-thick legal file of court proceedings that is currently lying on my desk. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of times I have seen him since I started that file four years ago.
Up until just a few days ago, I literally could not find my ex-husband.
But before he disappeared four years ago, I was a married, stay-at-home mom of a 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son. Then overnight my world turned upside down when my husband said he was going to the store and simply never returned.
Not only was my marriage over, but he left me with two very young children in a position where I was unable to instantaneously support us.
Quitting his job and leaving his work vehicle (his only car) in the parking lot of his employer, he turned off his phone, moved out of town, and became untraceable. His actions were not just an exaggerated statement that he no longer wanted our marriage, but it was a heartbreaking declaration that he also no longer wanted our kids.
And I’ve heard it all; the judgments that people love to throw my way. “Didn’t you see this coming,” and “what did you do to make him leave?” Or “this is why you never should not have been a stay-at-home mom without your own career,” and my favorite, “you had kids with him, you did this to yourself.”
Except that really, none of that matters. The fact is that I had two children, in a marriage where my husband made it abundantly clear that he wanted me to get pregnant, and then half of the people that it took to create those kids walked away.
Thankfully, one half stayed.
Despite our circumstances, I still want what’s best for my kids, so I wasted no time in trying to pull a life together for the remaining three of us. Unlike their father, I couldn’t ignore the kids’ heartache, and the last thing I wanted to do was add to their suffering with unmet necessities and hunger, which was at times a reality for us.
So thank goodness the kid’s father was legally required to financially provide for us by paying spousal support and child support!
Except how do you get money from someone that you can’t find?
You can’t. I didn’t.
Emergency motions were filed, temporary support orders were put in place, but at the end of the day all I had was a piece of paper stating that I should be getting money that I had no idea how to actually obtain. I was thrust face first into the reality that real life isn’t like TV, where the court system will hunt your ex down and make him pay, and kind hearted detectives are so worried about your children that they will put in overtime to track down your child’s deadbeat father and throw him in jail with the rest of the nation’s criminals.
No, I learned that real life is aggravatingly slow, exceedingly clerical, and unbelievably flooded with many parents who are in the same situation as mine.
Unfortunately, I’m no special snowflake. In the U.S., only 42 percent of custodial parents (the parent with physical custody of their children) are paid the full amount of child support that they are owed, leaving more than $21 billion in unpaid support that is owed to single parents like me. When you look at those astronomical amounts that our court systems are trying to deal with, it’s easy to understand why many single parents just become another number on a list and a file on a desk.
Throughout the entirety of my divorce process, my ex showed up to only one court date. It was the day he signed over all of our material possessions to me, saying he wanted absolutely nothing from his old life. When the judge asked him if he wanted visitation with his kids, he added insult to injury by stating that “those kids just aren’t worth my time.”
The judge divorced us.
The judge did however, order my now ex-husband — who was claiming that he was unemployed and could not pay support — to begin what was called a “job diary.” My ex was supposed to apply for two jobs a day, make a record of it, and bring the record to my attorney’s office on a regular basis in order to prove that he was attempting to financially support his unwanted, but still very much existing, children.
It didn’t surprise me though when he walked out of court that day and failed to ever show up to my attorney’s office with his job diary.
A year and a half after he left us, I still had not received even as much as a quarter from my ex-husband. On the phone with the child support office while pleading my case, I heard my caseworker sigh as she explained “you’re just going to have to think of this as a long term savings account. At some point he will be old enough to collect social security, and at that point the state will garnish his payments and send them to you.”
I was not OK with that.
It wasn’t even money that I was after per say, but rather the necessities that the money could buy. My ex left me in a bad situation and getting out of it has proven to be financially difficult. We live below the poverty line, and I need things for the kids now, but Target won’t take an “I owe you” and collect my payment in 16 years.
The caseworker’s answer was not good enough for me, but unfortunately there wasn’t much I could do about it. As far as I knew, my ex was working under the table somewhere. When the child support department checked his social security number, it reflected no activity that would trace him to a job, an apartment rental, a car payment, or even a credit card. Months dragged on as I watched notices being sent to my house stating that the child support department had suspended his hunting and fishing license, as well as his firearm ownership card. I got a letter stating that if he didn’t start paying, they would suspend his driver’s license. Eventually a letter came that they had suspended his driver’s license.
But none of that mattered to me, because what I needed was money and I didn’t have the luxury of waiting. And the irony of it all is that in order to get money, you need money. Slapping down the last of the money I had from selling many of my possessions, I paid my attorney to take my case back to court again in the hopes that I could speed along the process.
We went to court, a warrant was issued for my ex’s arrest, and then the waiting process began for someone to stumble across him, or for the police to randomly pull him over. A process that did nothing except shatter any stigmas I believed of how easy it is to have your ex thrown in jail for nonpayment of child support.
The jail was ready for him, but not if they couldn’t find him, and with real crime on the police dockets, my ex wasn’t anyone that they were actually looking for.
Months later I found out that he was working a part time job across town. Why his social security number hadn’t been flagged in the system, I don’t know, but when I called the police begging them to go pick him up, I was told that they didn’t have time. After calling every day for a week, I broke down into tears, and thankfully, the cop who had answered my call related to the struggling parent I was, and saw me as more than just a file on her desk.
My ex was picked up that afternoon, taken to jail, and mere hours later he bailed out with the entire amount of his back due support. He had the money all along, he just didn’t want any of it to go to his children.
Unfortunately, he didn’t change his ways, and did not continue to keep current on his support obligations. When the amount he owed our family once again reached a staggering amount, I took him back to court again. Having been served at his place of employment, he did show up to court, only to threaten “if you throw me in jail, I’ll get fired, and then you won’t get any money out of me,” which was it was enough to cause my attorney to remind me of how the law works. The law will send parents to jail for nonpayment, and their only way to get out before serving up to 12 months in some states is to pay the full amount of what they owe.
Looking at my ex and heeding my attorney’s words that my ex probably would lose his job, and might not get another one, I begrudgingly signed an agreement that would allow him to repay the debts he owed over the course of the next five years, via a garnishment from his paycheck.
I left the courthouse that day fuming: “I can’t believe that I just let him finance his kids.”
I didn’t like it, but I had made the best decision that I could in a situation with no great answer, and it turned out to be the wrong one. My ex quit his job, there was no support to be garnished, and he fell off the grid again.
I’ve gone to multiple court dates since then to try and get what my children are owed, but my ex never shows up and I leave with pieces of paper that just add to the clutter on an overwhelmed caseworker’s desk.
But then last week my ex surprised me and showed up to a court date for his continued nonpayment. Our case is set for hearing next month, but that doesn’t mean that I will be getting child support, or that I ever will.
With the largest percentage of our population’s poverty-stricken families comprised of single parents owed unpaid child support who can’t seem to catch up enough to get ahead, I fear that I may be stuck in this cycle forever. I want to give up, to stop chasing him down, but I have kids who need more than what I can provide them alone. I don’t like living below the poverty line, and I didn’t get into this situation by myself, but the burden of fixing it falls solely on me. My kids and I deserve better than what my ex is doing to us, but as I’ve come to learn, our situation is not something I can easily change.
“Just get child support” people say.
If only they knew.
(Photo: Eden Strong)