Happy New Year!
2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the child support program. I know some of you reading this have been in the program all 40 years – or in some cases, even longer. Congratulations and thank you for what you’ve done on behalf of kids and families around the globe during your tenure with the program. NCSEA’s Annual Policy Forum (February 12 – 14, 2015) will provide us an opportunity to reflect on our past, as well as look for ways to better serve the families that need our help.
As I contemplated writing this article, I decided to go back 40 years, and share part of my life story. I want to thank Commissioner Turetsky for encouraging me to go out on this limb.
I was 15 in 1975, and not dealing with “typical” teenage problems. But they were problems I had grown accustomed to dealing with. In 1975, I would have been living with one relative or another, or maybe sleeping on a friend’s couch. My mom and younger brother were most likely staying in my grandmother’s RV in a different town. With the exception of my 17-year-old sister – who had been living on her own for about a year – our family was technically homeless. It wasn’t the first time.
My mother was 16 when she married my father. At age 25, she was divorced with three kids. Mom remarried shortly thereafter. My step-father was an alcoholic who beat my mother when he was drunk. Like the majority of women in abusive marriages, mom left and returned to her husband multiple times during their seven-year marriage. There were always promises to stop drinking, promises to change, and promises that things would be better “this time.” Needless to say, they weren’t.
During marriage, we had to flee my step-father’s home two or three times a year, finding shelter in a relative’s garage, a friends’ basement, or in a substandard rental. My mother had a high school education, held various entry-level jobs over the years, and received regular child support payments from my father. But her financial independence was neither consistent nor assured. One reason she continued returning to her abusive marriage was for financial security.
I clearly remember the final time we left my step-father’s home. My mother had suffered a particularly brutal beating at his hands, and she had finally decided “this was it.” Within days, she shifted into divorce mode. I took the photos of her physical injuries for her court records. I was 12.
Our living situation didn’t improve much after the divorce. Money was always tight and we moved frequently; but we were fortunate to have generous relatives and friends who would take us in when needed. Through it all, my siblings and I relied on school – where we all excelled – for our stability. I left for college a month after my 17th birthday. Thanks to scholarships, grants, and loans, all three of us graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees.
My mother married two more times. By then I was an adult and the comings and goings of “steps” lost relevance. When my mother passed away a year ago, she left behind her fourth husband, who is a kind and gracious man.
So where was my father? I was five when my parents divorced in 1964. Dad’s post-divorce involvement with us followed the standard visitation pattern for the era. We stayed with him every other weekend and two weeks each summer. He had a good union job and always paid his child support on time. I knew because I often acted as the check courier on the last Sunday of each month. And if it was a “short” month at mom’s house, one of us would be tasked with asking dad to send the check early.
A couple years after the divorce, my father married his second wife. Within a few years, they adopted two children. My step-mother was an alcoholic. She abused their adopted son – breaking his arm at one point. My siblings and I chose to become estranged from our father during his marriage because of the abuse, and refused to spend time with him until he divorced his second wife. He later married a third time – we acquired more “steps.” His third wife passed away a few years ago.
My childhood wasn’t all bleak. I have many happy memories. I chose to talk about my less-than-perfect family life because of the connection to the work we do.
First, if you are a child support professional, there’s a family like mine in your caseload. When we talk about family-centered services, it can feel pretty abstract. Having worked in social services since 1983, I also know how easy it is to become a little jaded about the families we serve. If you need to put a name or a face on the kids in the struggling families you serve, you can use mine. I’ve even included a photo.
Second, I hope I’ve given you a sense of how much chaos I lived with during most of my childhood. This is the chaos with which many child support families live. Imagine trying to get your kids up and dressed in the middle of the night – while trying to gather important documents and possessions – in order to flee a partner who has just beaten you. That physical chaos is accompanied by emotional chaos – not just for the victim but for the children as well. These are difficult child support cases for us because of that disarray.
And third and most importantly, some of you reading this have friends or relatives who are in an abusive relationship. They need your help. Or you may be the victim in an abusive relationship. You need to get out – now. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline – at 1-800-799-SAFE or www.thehotline.org – to get help for yourself or a loved one.
I encourage you, in your role as a child support professional, to take the time to identify local resources for families who are trying to escape domestic violence. When you check the DV box in your automated system, ask a simple follow-up question: Do you need help with food or shelter? Families can recover from the chaos. The kids can go on to lead happy, successful lives. Like my siblings and me, they just need a little help from caring adults along the way.