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.