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An often-ignored recovery issue: child support

December 28, 2012
by Izaak L. Williams
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While non-custodial fathers are often court-mandated to pay child support1, back unpaid child support has remained a little-discussed issue in substance abuse treatment. Because the credentials of many men in recovery qualify them mostly for low-prestige, seasonal or menial low-paying jobs in our service economy2,3, these men may find it difficult to secure a socially affirming job or to earn a livable wage. As a result, it is not unusual for some men to fall behind on their child support payments or to deliberately forego over-the-table employment in the name of self-preservation to avoid having their wages garnished.4,5

This is a likely factor accounting for a significant portion of the 18% of persons in addiction treatment who are unemployed for reasons other than those “commonly recognized” due to disability, being a caretaker or babysitter, being retired, or going to school.6

In order to address this issue in treatment, addiction professionals can invite a representative from the state-run child support enforcement agency (CSEA) to conduct an information workshop in which men can learn about child support issues, receive assistance in scheduling frequency of visitation with children, and understand how to remediate CSEA enforcement actions that limit employment opportunities. Such workshops can be extremely informative and can help non-custodial fathers overcome a deep sense of disillusionment with their inability to negotiate regular child support payments. The workshop provides answers to many questions about the who, what, where, when and how of child support.

Generally, CSEA workshops hold the potential to instill in fathers a newfound sense of autonomy to petition the enforcement agency to proactively adjust monthly support payments as well as the overall balance of child support. This can facilitate repairs in the co-parental relationship, allowing some men to have active involvement in their children’s lives. It also sets the stage for men to petition support of the court system for visitation rights or legal custody of their children.

Easing turbulent relations

Granted, some men may believe that the mother of their child is not deserving of economic support because support payments are being misused, as in not supporting the needs and overall well-being of the child.7 Men who are not on good terms with their ex-spouse or ex-partner may be particularly sensitive about having little to no decision-making influence over how support payments are spent, which can serve to inhibit support payments.8

If social turbulence characterizes the father’s interaction with the mother of his children, and in response the mother restricts the father’s opportunity for parental involvement, some men may be driven to spite the ex-spouse by refusing that person any bit of their earned income.9 This may reasonably intensify resentments in the co-parental relationship.

When this is the case, professionals can help men by incorporating the making of amends into their treatment plan. This can include working independently or joining an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) 12-Step fellowship and working conjointly with a sponsor on Step 4 (personal inventory), Step 9 (making amends) and Step 12 (principles over personalities).

The goal is to re-evaluate attitudes, feelings and behaviors, and to reframe past history with their children’s mother. The goal is for men to come to “a place of respect or at least acceptance of their child’s mother … to establish, or at least attempt to establish, a more cooperative partnership with her.”10