When Mike goes to court later this month for failing to pay child support, he plans to ask for a jury trial. "If I get up there in front of 12 strangers and tell them my story, I believe I'll be found innocent," he said.
Mike, who lives in Newport Beach, is in the majority when it comes to divorced or, in his case, never-married fathers. Nationally, only 47% regularly pay the full amount of child support ordered by the court, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. About half of those who do pay make partial payments on an unpredictable schedule, and the rest pay nothing at all.
The money Mike doesn't pay--$288 a month--is for his 5-year-old daughter, a daughter he hasn't been permitted to see since 1985. On Christmas Eve of that year, he waited, as prescribed by court order, at the Orange County Courthouse information booth.
"I sat for over two hours that Christmas Eve waiting for my daughter." She never arrived. "I don't give up easy," Mike said. "On all successive court-ordered meetings for the following three months, I sat and waited." No daughter.
Mike said he then sought help from the district attorney's office. "Since, I reasoned, they have 50 or so people representing mothers prosecuting fathers for support, they must have a resource there for visitation disputes. They do not.
"They told me to telephone my ex-girlfriend and 'work things out.' "
He tried, but she wouldn't talk to him, he said.
"Since the mother has excluded me from all aspects of the child's life except financial, she may have that responsibility as well," he said. "I'm not going to finance a program that I don't have any control over."
A manager for a building supply company, Mike said child support would take a big bite out of his monthly income of about $1,000. But he'd be willing to pay, he said, if only he could see his child.
Mike sees child support as his only weapon in the battle with his ex and with the court. "I don't just not pay," he said. "Every month I send a money order (to the court) for $6 or $5.85 or something like that just to mock them. I understand it costs them about $7 to reprocess the check, so this way they're having to pay something."
The bitterness of the whole experience has Mike afraid of getting married or having another child, he said. "You bet it has. Long before all this stuff came out about AIDS, I've been using condoms. I don't want to be a disposable parent. That's already happened to me once."
Mike may be in the majority when it comes to national statistics, but according to the letters we've received, he's definitely a renegade as far as Family Life readers go. Mike was the only non-paying father who responded to our "Daddy, Can You Spare a Dime?" inquiry. The others said they've been paying regularly for years.
Bob, a magazine editor who lives in Garden Grove, said he can understand why some fathers don't pay, even though he didn't make that choice. For 16 years, he sent a check and a letter for his son in Oregon. Now that the son is 21, Bob's official obligation has ended, although he now keeps in touch with his son directly.
"As you send your monthly check halfway across the country for a child you haven't seen in almost a year, you can't help wondering if you aren't simply one of the chumps," Bob said.
"Do I condone fathers not paying child support? No, not really. But I understand. Boy, do I understand.
"It's natural to wonder how any self-respecting father can deny his children support. We forget that after a divorce, self-respect isn't high on one's list of personal attributes. For fathers, the immediate and total loss of rights and options where their children are concerned only compounds the loss of self-esteem resulting from a failed marriage.
"Some people--perhaps most--don't handle this feeling of powerlessness and humiliation very well. They quite naturally want to strike back. The divorced father has one weapon, and only one. He can stop paying child support. When he does, he becomes an outlaw and a deadbeat. By the time a father exercises this option, something else usually has to happen. For the preservation of his sanity and whatever remains of his self-image, he must stop caring about his children and what they think of him. And when this happens, he is truly a man with nothing left to lose."
Rick, an unmarried father of a 3-year-old son, said he can't imagine not paying support.
"I find it hard to believe that someone couldn't take responsibility for their own children," he said. An oil well surveillance technician who lives in Huntington Beach, Rick pays $500 a month in child support in addition to keeping the boy in his home about half the time. "I pay that first and worry about everything else later," he said.
The court ordered Rick to pay less than half that amount, but he pays more so that the mother can afford to live in Orange County. "To me it was worth the price to see my son every day at least. I got additional jobs to make ends meet. My relationship with him has grown by leaps and bounds. It is unthinkable to me not to be able to see my son almost when I wish. I don't ever intend to be out of his life."
Robert, a teacher who lives in Garden Grove, disagrees with the wording of our question. "It's not, 'Daddy, can you spare a dime?' It's more like, 'Daddy, can you pay for driving lessons, the band trip to Hawaii, school clothes, etc., all on top of what you send each month in child support?' "
When Robert and his wife were divorced in 1982, he was ordered to pay $1,300 a month for the support of his six children. He also was ordered to pay $500 a month toward the family's debts. That left him $200 for himself.
"I moonlighted and lived on that. I didn't tell the court about it, or I'm sure they would have taken part of that, too."
Still, Robert said he never resented paying. "If you want to argue over alimony, that's one thing. But don't argue over the child support."
Bill, another teacher who lives in Cypress, said he can understand both sides. "I never thought about not paying. I loved my son so much, and I had a strong sense of responsibility."
Bill agreed to move out when he and his wife split in 1974 "for the sake of my son's environmental stability. My luxurious furnishings included a typing table, a desk lamp, a folding chair and a sleeping bag. Only later did I acquire a ragged, stained box springs and mattress from a friend."
Bill paid $100 a month for his son, $25 of which was set aside for higher education. Now that the son is 19, Bill is no longer required to pay, and the boy is using the $13,000 that accumulated to pay for college.
"My apologies if I sound chauvinistic," Bill said. "Actually, I like women; my new wife is one. And my ex and I get along well now.
"Unfortunately, some women want it all. They want the ex-husband out of their lives but still want a large part of his income (especially if she demands alimony). They want custody of the children but do not want the full financial responsibility of them. Even during marriage a working wife will often take this attitude about income: 'What's his is ours, and what's mine is mine.' That attitude continues even after the divorce."
Some of those who don't pay are non-custodial mothers, as Greg's wife, a reader from Mission Viejo, points out. "I resent the sexist attitude that fathers are behind and mothers and children are the victims." A second wife who did not give her first name, Greg's wife said her husband's ex-wife owes more than $1,900 in back child support. She suggested using the term "delinquent parents."
You're the real authorities on what family life in Orange County is like. Give us your opinion, share your experiences on these or other topics:
Daddy (or Mommy),
Can You Spare
Let's keep the discussion going for another week. Moms spoke first, but now that we've heard from Dads, everyone has an opportunity for rebuttal. And kids, we'd like you to get involved, too. How do you feel about child support?
What does it pay to be a kid in Orange County? Tell us how your family handles the issue of allowances. How much money do your children get each week, and what--if anything--do they have to do to earn it? And kids: Is it enough? What do you do with the money? And what's the best way to get a raise? Or an advance?
Send your comments to Family Life, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that a reporter may contact you. To protect your privacy, Family Life does not publish correspondents' last names.