Law Quadrangle (formerly Law Quad Notes)


A couple with children separate and divorce. A court orders one parent, typically the father, to pay child support to the other, but the father fails to pay. This pattern repeats itself thousands of times each year in nearly every American state.

The state of Michigan is unusual. It collects more child support per case from its divorced parents than any other state. Much of this success is due to the fact that every Michigan county has long had an agency, the Friend of the Court, that receives all payments and oversees the entire enforcement process, sending warnings to fathers who fall behind. David L. Chambers, a member of the U-M Law School faculty, undertook a study of Michigan's collection systems to learn, among other things, why, even within Michigan, some counties had vastly greater collections than others.

After examining collections in 28 counties, Chambers found that those counties that jailed large numbers of defaulting men for contempt of court collected more than other counties, if (but only if) they also had a well-organized system of warnings to men who were falling behind. Michigan's counties jail men at an awesome rate. In some Michigan counties, one divorced father with children in every six ends up in jail at least once for failing to pay during the life of his court order.

Chambers also found, however, that the enforcement process systematically led to the jailing of the men about whom there was the greatest doubts of their capacity to pay. Believing further that American's general propensity to jail everyone we consider immoral is a dangerous one, Chambers explored whether governments could create alternatives to the current system that would produce higher levels of payments for children without the undesirable effects of a system that relies heavily on jailing.

Chambers' findings and conclusions are reported in a new book Making Fathers Pay, published by the University of Chicago Press. In the book, Chambers illustrates many of his points through examples from one family, the Neals, whose members he interviewed. Here is an excerpt* from the chapter in which he explored new ways of assuring adequate income to the children of divorced parents.