Shannon, 11, considers herself too old for Santa Claus. But last Christmas Eve while she slept, a man crept quietly up to the doorstep of her Costa Mesa home, leaving a gift for her before he sneaked away unseen.
The man was Shannon's father, and he was sneaking because there was--and still is--a warrant out for his arrest. He owes more than $10,000 in child support. Shannon's mother, Gaye, said she would not have called the police if she had seen him that night. But if it had not been Christmas Eve, Gaye said, she probably would have.
"If he had to be incarcerated for just one day, I really believe he would change," Gaye said.
Since the child-support checks stopped coming more than two years ago, Gaye has tried every approach she could think of to make her ex-husband pay. She has pleaded with him, in letters and on the telephone. She has hired two private attorneys, and contracted with a Costa Mesa agency that takes a percentage of the money it collects. And she has gone to the Family Support Division of the Orange County district attorney's office.
"Every attempt I have made has been absolutely fruitless," Gaye said. "I know he's working as an electrical contractor. He's making good money. I know where he lives. I have pictures. My case has been on file with the D.A.'s office for two years. They have a description of his vehicle, his residence phone, his beeper number, his mother's phone number. But nobody seems to be able to do anything. This is the most frustrating thing I have ever experienced.
"The system is a joke," Gaye said. "I feel like telling them all to go to hell."
Today's is the third and last installment of Family Life's focus on child support. Fewer than half of the nation's non-custodial parents--most of them fathers--pay their child support regularly. We have heard from custodial parents--mostly mothers--about the frustrations of waiting for a check that may not come, and from fathers who pay and from those who do not.
But the child support crisis affects others as well. There are the children for whom the money is intended, and grandparents, step-parents and other family members who step in to fill the gap.
Gaye, Shannon's mother, spoke for her because the subject of Shannon's father is a distressing one for the child. He neither sends money nor visits, and Gaye said Shannon is seeing a therapist because of her reaction to the problem.
"A couple of months ago on her birthday, she waited and waited by the mailbox, saying, 'I want to see what Daddy sent me.' There was nothing. We (Gaye and her current husband, Keith) found her later in the corner of her closet, crying. Since then she's been 'acting out' with all kinds of behaviors. She started having severe stomach pains, and she's gone through all kinds of tests, but everything is negative. I'm convinced it's from the stress," Gaye said.
Shannon has problems beyond those of a normal child, her mother said. She is hyperkinetic and learning disabled, and must have medication and special schooling.
"Her stepfather works seven days a week, and I work five days and several nights a week to pay for all the extras she needs: the private school, the $125-an-hour therapist, the medication," Gaye said.
"She's still crazy about her daddy. She thinks he hung the moon. From counseling, I've learned that children do that. I try very hard not to downgrade her father. But frankly, I'm just sick of making excuses for him. We're becoming more honest. It's time to get real. We tell her he has a problem we don't understand," she said.
Shannon is aware that her father is not sending money, but, Gaye said, "she doesn't know what I'm doing with attorneys and the D.A., or about the warrant for his arrest. But the other day, she asked me, 'Is it against the law for a father not to send money for his children?' When I told her it was, she didn't say anything.
"People do not realize the devastating effect this has on everyone involved. This was a choice we both made to have this child. How dare he walk away while we deal with all the problems.
"My husband says to forget it, we don't want a dime of his money. But we're talking about $40,000 here by the time she's grown. That's an incredible amount of money to give up. I just refuse to do it.
"At least I have a partner who loves my daughter as if she were his own. I feel sorry for the women who are all alone. I see these poor girls with their children at the D.A.'s office. There are signs all over that say not to bring your kids, but how are they going to hire a baby-sitter?"
Gaye said that of all people, Shannon's father should understand how she feels. "His father did the same thing. He left the family when (Shannon's father) was 8 years old. He used to tell me how devastating the whole thing was to him."
John, a retired engineer who lives in Huntington Beach, never considered the subject of divorce or child support when his three daughters were growing up. They have children of their own now, and he is still married to their mother.
Nonetheless, John is involved in the child-support issue. He has testified before the state Assembly, and he does volunteer work for SPUNK (Single Parents United 'N' Kids), a child-support advocacy organization.
"Somebody's got to take the side of the children," John said. "Something more has to be done. But what? You can't just teach people morals."
John got involved when his daughter's husband "ran off with another woman and left her with four children to support. He decided to sleep with another woman. They had a confrontation; he left.
"It shook her up considerably. She was so emotionally upset, she almost committed suicide. I got my youngest daughter to take care of the kids, and she (the abandoned daughter) went to a psychiatric hospital. She got a little better after that, but meanwhile, he was piling debts up like mad."
John did some research before his daughter went to court, represented by an attorney he had known in high school. "I didn't realize it then, but he wasn't familiar with family law. I figured that at a minimum, it would take $650 a month to support the children. But somehow it got put down as $112.50 per child, which is only $450 a month. But the judge didn't catch it, so he got away with it." Even with the reduced amount, John said, his former son-in-law is not paying regularly.
"I'm retired, I don't have that much money, but he just wouldn't accept any responsibility," John said. "So I had to help her out."
John said his daughter is going to college now, using a small scholarship and the money she received when the family's house was sold in the divorce. "She gets money from the husband, sometimes," John said. "I haven't had to help her in the past few months. But it seems like such a desperate situation. It's costing her about $3,000 a month to live. I don't know what she'll do when the money from the house runs out.
"With this, as with a lot of things, there's a lot of what I call pseudo-psychological help out there. You can cry on their shoulder, and they'll listen. But people need some help, physical help, real help. They need to know what the law is, what rights they have, so they can help themselves. In the old days, people helped each other. Now they just console each other."
You're the real authorities on family life in Orange County. Give us your opinion; share your experiences on these or other topics:
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?
This hurts me more than it does you . . .
Not long ago, spanking was considered a necessary part of bringing up children. But now it's "corporal punishment," and many parents avoid it altogether. What about you? Do you spank? Under what circumstances? Would you allow someone else to spank your child? If you're a non-spanker, what other forms of punishment do you use?
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 call you. To protect your privacy, Family Life does not publish correspondents' last names.