Below is a story from the Washington Times concerning the injustice inherent to the
Bradley Amendment that makes it illegal to retroactively modify child support arrears.
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Child-support-law amendment comes to attention of Hill; Provision
revision could end to horror stories ( The Washington Times ) Cheryl
In 1990, Lockheed employee and divorced father Bobby Sherrill was captured in Kuwait
and spent nearly five harrowing months as an Iraqi hostage.
When Mr. Sherrill was released, he returned to his joyful, weeping family in North
The next night, the sheriff came to arrest Mr. Sherrill. The charge: not paying $1,425
in child support while he was a hostage.
A similar shock awaited Clarence Brandley.
In 1980, the Texas high school janitor was wrongly accused of murder. He spent nearly
10 years in prison, most of it on death row, until his exoneration in January 1990.
In 1991, Mr. Brandley sued the state for wrongful imprisonment. The state responded
with a bill for nearly $50,000 in child support that Mr. Brandley didn't pay while in
The child-support meters never stopped running on Mr. Sherrill or Mr. Brandley because
they didn't ask a court to reduce their payments.
Such lapses are costly because of a federal law known as the Bradley amendment.
Reforming the Bradley amendment could come up today in a House hearing on fatherhood and
The amendment, named for former Sen. Bill Bradley, New Jersey Democrat, says that once
a child-support obligation has been established, it can't be retroactively reduced or
forgiven by a judge.
The amendment was enacted in 1986 to stop parents from running up huge child-support
debts and getting a sympathetic judge to erase them..
Twelve years later, however, the unintended consequences of the Bradley amendment have
become clearer, and a growing number of people are calling for the law to be repealed or
at least modified.
According to the reformers, the Bradley amendment:
* All but ensures that any parent who has a dip in cash flow will be buried under a
debt that cannot be legally escaped.
* Helps chase poor men into illegal activities or the underground economy, away from
"mainstream" jobs and their children.
Reformers are having some success arguing their case on Capitol Hill, but admit that
their battle is uphill: Members of Congress are loath to do anything that might be seen as
going soft on child-support enforcement.
However, reformers say, they have a powerful incentive for change in the way the
Bradley amendment keeps low-income fathers trapped in child-support debt.
Congress and the White House are both pushing to get low-income fathers to support
their families and even marry the mothers of their children, said one reformer who asked
not to be identified.
But these fathers "are not marriage material with a huge debt over their
head," he says. When reform of the Bradley amendment is presented in this context,
"more people understand that something has to be done to fix it," he says.
The nation's child-support enforcement system was created in 1975 to collect monthly
payments from parents whose families were on welfare, were in danger of going on welfare
or needed help with collections.
Currently, the $3 billion federal-state system is working on behalf of 30 million
children owed support.
Last year, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), a
record $14.4 billion in child support was collected.
The Bradley amendment has often worked as intended, by locking in arrears while the
system doggedly pursues wily, wealthy parents who ducked their obligations.
Some big catches have included a New York plastic surgeon who owed $172,000, a
professional athlete who owed $76,000 and a yacht company owner who owed $50,000,
according to a recent article in Government Executive magazine.
The child-support system is hailed when it bags deadbeats like these.
But there's less applause when the system applies the same tough rules and penalties on
people like the shaggy-haired man who recently stood in handcuffs before a Maryland
Circuit Court judge.
The shaggy-haired man told the judge he lived with his mother and was too disabled to
work. He had just spent two weeks in jail for not paying his $10-a-week child support. His
total debt was $42,788.
The judge ordered the man to pay $75 a week toward his debt.
But even at that rate, observed a lawyer, "it will take that guy 80 years to pay
Several child-support advocacy groups say that, despite these pitiful cases, the
Bradley amendment should be maintained because it serves a need.
"We supported the Bradley amendment when it passed, because it stopped a judge in
State B from wiping out [the debt from] an order passed by a judge in State A," says
Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
"We still need it because 40 percent of cases are interstate, and we still only
have 20 percent of people paying" their full support, says Ms. Jensen.
Moreover, she adds, 80 percent of those who owe child support are middle- to
upper-income parents who can pay.
"If you change the Bradley amendment itself, you provide an incentive for guys who
can pay but are determined not to," says Vicki Turetsky, senior staff lawyer at the
Center for Law and Social Policy.
However, despite the Bradley amendment's hold on accrued debts, and a new array of
enforcement tactics, the child-support system still collects less than half of what is
owed. Vermont collects the most - 41 percent of owed support, according to OCSE data,
while 25 states collect 20 percent or less of owed support.
A lot of this debt is owed by "dead-broke dads," "turnip dads" or
"beat-dead dads," say scholars and advocacy groups.
"Turnip" dads are those who earn less than $130 a week and would be
impoverished themselves if they paid support, says Ford Foundation Project Officer Ronald
Mr. Mincy and Elaine J. Sorensen estimate that between 16 percent and 33 percent of
fathers are "turnips."
The "beat-dead dads" are the ones who have child-support orders set so high
that "any hiccup in cash flow" quickly results in thousands of dollars of
arrears, says Ron Henry, a lawyer active in the Children' s Rights Council and Men's
"Then the Bradley amendment [says] once an arrearage is accrued, it exists
forever. You cannot waive it. You cannot modify it. Too bad, sucker," says Mr. Henry,
who says the law should be repealed.
The child-support system, Mr. Henry adds, ostensibly allows parents to change the
amount of their child-support payments.
But in practice, the system is unwieldy and prefers inertia in people' s lives until
the child reaches age 18 - no one remarries, no one loses a job, no one becomes disabled,
no one goes to jail, he says.
A major reason many child-support orders are set at high amounts and grow so fast is
because they are set without the paying parent in the courtroom, say experts.
The Los Angeles Times reported last fall that "roughly 70 percent" of fathers
"are not in court when paternity is established and their monthly obligations
Men might not even know they owe child-support, retroactive to the day their family
went on welfare, say experts.
The same Los Angeles Times story said that local law enforcement records showed that
"on average, more than 350 men a month are incorrectly named as fathers."
The Bradley amendment ensures that even if the court makes a mistake, "you can
never get out of it," says Mike Ewing, a leader of the Virginia Fatherhood Initiative
in Norfolk, who knows several men who are paying support even though DNA tests proved they
weren't the children's father.
"I think the Bradley amendment was well intended . . . but we need to come up with
an amendment to the Bradley amendment," says Joe Jones, who works with low-income
fathers with the Partnership for Fragile Families and Baltimore City's Healthy Start
The way child support works now, says Mr. Jones, "is like giving a young,
low-income minority father a credit card with $10,000 worth of debt on it. How in the heck
will he ever be able to pay it off?"
Wendell Primus, a senior analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says
the child-support system "has to undergo a cultural change similar to the way the
[welfare] office did."
Its mission should move from one of "collection and disbursement" to working
with fatherhood groups and others to get these fathers "employed and connected to
their children," says Mr. Primus.
Such an effort is under way in Anne Arundel County, where a Child Support Initiative
program helps parents who face jail for not paying child support.
The government-funded CSI program steers men to training and jobs, and gives them a
stipend, which they can apply toward child support.
Between 1993 and 1998, the 462 parents in the program paid $2.2 million in child
support, including $464,880 from stipends, says program administrator Brent Johnson, a
lawyer with the Public Defenders Office. He adds 271 parents are working.
Other innovations have emerged to deal with the child-support system' s idiosyncrasies.
Tennessee, for instance, enacted a law last year that will "forgive" the
state portion of a child-support debt if the parents of the child marry and live together.
The deal is off if the parents break up.
In some courts, support orders are rewritten to assign most of the money to the
arrears. A $200-a-month order, for example, might be rewritten to request $10 for current
support and $190 for the arrears, which upholds the Bradley amendment but slows the
descent into debt.
But both advocates and opponents of change agree that any efforts to reform entrenched
child-support rules such as the Bradley amendment are nascent and easily aborted.
"There's an unspoken acknowledgment that [the Bradley amendment] is a bad law, but
no one will try to change it because they will be seen as being against child
support," says Traci Snitker of the Men's Health Network.
Child-support is a fact of life and people should wise up about it, says Jacqueline D.
Stanley, a lawyer who recently published a guidebook called "Unmarried People's
The laws, including the Bradley amendment, need to be strict to ensure that
"people are treated the same way," she says, adding, "Discretion, whenever
possible, should be removed from judges."
But Mrs. Stanley freely admits that she doesn't do child-support cases anymore because
there are "too many horror stories."
"There's really no help for them," she says. "That's why I tell people
all the time `Be careful who you choose' " to have a baby with.