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Laura Wish Morgan
with Chuck Shively of the Department of Social & Health Services, Washington State

When non-custodial fathers who are behind in their support obligation are asked the reason for non-compliance, 23% answered lack of visitation. Consequently, the Office of Child Support Enforcement has placed an emphasis on the non-custodial father's access to his children based on the premise that greater access means great support compliance. Sumati Dubey, A Study of Reasons for Nonpayment of Child Support by Noncustodial Parents, 1996 Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare (abstract available). See also Daniel R. Meyer, Compliance with Child Support Orders in Paternity and Divorce Cases (Institute for Research on Poverty, Madison, Wisconsin, 1997) (full text); Deena Mandell, Fathers Who Don't Pay Child Support: Hearing Their Voices, 23 Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 85 (1995) (abstract available). But is this true?

Early research tended to support the hypothesis that the more a father sees his children the more consistent his child support payments will be. Visitation by the father is "an important means of facilitating positive child support outcomes and better family relationships," concluded one study. Some studies went even further to conclude that visitation would increase payments if visits provided information about children's material needs. Fathers would therefore pay additional support to take care of these needs. Judith Seltzer summarized this "reciprocal causation" hypothesis, so widely accepted by other researchers, that "visiting and paying child support" are complimentary activities if noncustodial parents anticipate that seeing children will enhance the satisfaction that they get from paying support, and if they expect that paying support will enhance the quality of time they spend with their children. It was widely held that greater father-child contact would facilitate greater financial responsibility by fathers.

Although some researchers, like Lenore Weitzman, were strongly arguing for universal enforcement of child support obligations as early as 1985, this was not the prevailing opinion among researchers of that time. Most of the research studies agreed with the conclusion that facilitating and encouraging parental involvement on the part of divorced fathers may be an easier, more effective approach to insuring that children receive their child support than enforcement. Enforcement may actually have a negative effect in terms of further alienating fathers from their children, they believed.

As researchers began to stop collecting their data mainly from fathers and began to explore the relationship between visiting and paying child support in longitudinal studies, the theory that increased visitation would result in increased child support compliance began to wane. In 1993, the Office of Economic Research, U.S. Bureau of Labor undertook a study based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). The NLSY is a survey of more than 12,000 men and women who are interviewed annually since 1979. The authors of this study found contrary to previous studies, increases in visitation have no effect on changes in child support.

Although this study concluded that any increase in the rate of visitation, over a period of time, does not result in any increase in child support, it still found an association between child support and visitation. Do fathers who visit more often tend to pay more child support, or do fathers who pay child support tend to visit more? Subsequent studies have still not answered this conclusively. The author of this study could only speculate that it "appears to be due to unmeasured characteristics of the parents rather than changes in child support responding to changes in visitation." In attempts to determine why fathers who visited more often also paid more child support, research began to suggest that if non-custodial fathers invest economic resources in their children, they also invest time and attention as well.

In one of her studies of this hypothesis, Judith Seltzer divided the relationship of the noncustodial father with his children into three roles and gathered data to determine what extent participation in one of those roles would predict or influence activity in the others. These three roles and responsibilities of the father after separation were: participating in decisions about how the children will be raised, spending time with the children, and contributing to the children's economic support. Not surprisingly, the results of this study, numbering more than 1,300 respondents, showed that most fathers have very little influence in child-rearing and are unlikely to discuss the children with their mother. This outcome seems obviously related to the fact that over 40% of the fathers in this study had no more than one day of contact with their children in the past year. Only 27% of the respondents saw their children more than once a week. More importantly, the father's low level of social involvement mirrored the absence of economic ties to their children. Fathers who feel little obligation to their children are reluctant to provide material support and show little, if any, interest in child rearing. Those fathers who did pay were found to have more contact and influence regarding child-rearing decisions. While this study offered no definitive statement that payment of child support will result in full participation in the other roles, the researchers did conclude that "increasing fathers' economic ties to children in the early years after separation may have long term effects on continued involvement throughout childhood."

In additional research on fathers' involvement in these three defined roles, Ms. Seltzer concluded that stronger emphasis on establishing this economic tie to the children through "improved child support enforcement is especially likely to increase visiting if parents define their role as having both economic and social components. Noncustodial parents who pay support may feel more uncomfortable about playing only part of the parent role than they do about avoiding parental responsibilities."

Additional studies also suggest that payment of child support has a greater influence on contact than contact has on payment of child support. The degree of compliance with a child support order in the previous year is a significant predictor of visitation even after past visitation history is controlled as a variable in the study. The findings, that contact appears to have a weaker influence on paying child support than payment has on contact, suggest efforts to increase contact will not necessarily result in more child support. However, efforts to enforce compliance with payment of child support could lead to more child contact. Perhaps the "unmeasured characteristics" previously mentioned result if father identity is so high that men remain anchored in that identity and enact fathering roles accordingly. To help develop this identity, the enforcement of child support appears to be the most effective starting point:

A growing number of studies show a positive association between the amount of child support that nonresidential fathers pay and their children's behavior and school achievement. A dollar of child support, in other words has a greater effect on outcomes for children than does a dollar from other sources, such as earnings or AFDC. Child support may have a symbolic value for children, indicating their father's concern and reinforcing the beneficial effects of the greater amount of time that fathers who pay support spend with their children . . . Child support has a positive effect on children's well-being, even when differences in visiting and conflict are controlled statistically. The preliminary evidence suggests that more universal and rigorous child support enforcement may enhance the well-being of children whose parents divorce.

J. Seltzer and D. Meyer, "Child Support and Children's Well-Being," at 34, Focus (Fall 1996).

An access and visitation program should more appropriately be designed as a father involvement program. It should develop partnerships with organizations or provide services that are more broadly based on father's involvement than simply addressing disputes resulting from visiting problems. The focus should be on aiding father involvement at the earliest possible stage. To accomplish this goal the program must encompass these objectives:

  • Prevent men from having children before they are ready for the financial and emotional responsibilities of fatherhood.
  • Prepare men for the legal, financial and emotional responsibilities of fatherhood.
  • Promote paternity establishment at childbirth.
  • Reach out to men who are fathers, whether married or not, to foster their emotional connections to and financial support of their children.
  • Actively support fathers in the variety of their roles and in their continuing connection with their children. Create a connection with job training programs to enable men to assume the financial responsibility for their children.

Given that research has shown sporadic, infrequent visits when there is ongoing conflict between the parents is detrimental for children and, furthermore, conflict is the major predictor for the mother to want less father-child contact, these attempts could be radically counterproductive. It is a father's involvement, not contact, that benefits children. For a father to remain involved, regardless of his initial commitment to do so, the relationship and support from the mother is more important than incidence of father-child contact. Furthermore, research shows that continued involvement depends more on his satisfaction with his visitation rather than the number of times he has contact with the child.


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