Sat | Feb 22, 2020

Courting deadbeats - Thousands face law annually for child maintenance

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2019 | 12:22 AMCarlene Davis - Gleaner Writer
Diahann Gordon Harrison
Dr Leith Dunn

Jamaican women haul nearly 5,000 fathers to court for child maintenance every year.

Data from Court Management Services (CMS) show that an annual average of 4,775 fathers are brought to book for not paying their share of child support. That number includes summonses for repeat offences and enforcements.

The data from CMS also showed that most of the fathers being brought before the courts were under 40 years old. No statistics were made available on the parishes of residence.

CMS did not provide data on the number of warrants served to fathers in Jamaica for non-compliance, but over the three-year period, an estimated average of 61 per cent of fathers annually adhered to court directives.

However, a major flaw in Jamaican Family Court is that it does not have rigid monitoring mechanisms for identifying payment delinquency unless a mother makes new reports.

In countries such as the United States of America, failure to make child-support payments can trigger dire consequences, such as suspension of a driver’s licence, wage deduction, losing eligibility to obtain a passport, and being sent to jail.

But Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison says that local courts just do not have the resources and capacity to chase down deadbeat dads.

“The courts can only make the order. Thereafter, if it is that the parties are defaulting in living up to their responsibilities, the onus is on the parties to alert the court that the man has defaulted in his responsibilities.

“It would be very hard for the court office to be chasing 4,775 people physically in their communities every week to find out if money is being deposited, but there is a framework established that if it is that there is a default, then the party who is being slighted can bring the matter to the court’s attention,” said Gordon Harrison.

A former prosecutor in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Gordon Harrison is urging mothers to hold men accountable for their share of responsibility.

“I know for a fact that when the mother, for example, says the father has defaulted, then the court now again has the jurisdiction to enter into the fray and take steps to hold the man accountable. These steps include bringing him back to court and demanding that he pay, or in some instances, even having the man arrested until he pays the money,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Sociologist and gender specialist Dr Leith Dunn has chided fathers who do not stand up to their responsibility until they are dragged before the court. But she also cites gender-based inequity such as unequal pay as one of the structural barriers to women caring for their children on their own instead of constantly hunting down delinquent fathers for money.

“I think unemployment is also a factor, and, therefore, some of them do not have jobs or are in low-paying jobs without the education to enable them to support their families. This also means that you have to pay women a living wage, an equal wage, and one of the problems is that the unequal wages paid to women means that they have to find other means of supporting themselves and their children,” said Dunn.

“If we eliminated things like sexual harassment and gender-based violence, then we would have women actually participating in the labour force at a level that would enable them to be independent and less dependent on men,” said Dunn.

On a different tack, anthropologist and chairman of Fathers Incorporated, Dr Herbert Gayle, said paternity doubts was a major factor of child maintenance non-compliance in Jamaica.

Citing a 20 per cent incidence of ‘jackets’ – the Jamaican colloquialism that describes children who are passed off, mistakenly or deceptively, to men who are not their biological father – Gayle told The Sunday Gleaner that many men refused to pay over funds to women because they harboured strong suspicions.

“A number of those fathers being brought before the courts will end up not being the father of the child, so some Jamaican males have a reason to be concerned as to whether or not they are the father of a child, and that is a popular problem,” said Gayle.

Gayle said that another factor causing some men to shun child maintenance is that they are socialised to see fatherhood as an ATM. Therefore, if they have low incomes, they would rather pay nothing at all.

“When we interviewed mothers and children in a study called the ‘Adolescents of St Catherine’, we found in that project that the fathers who lived next door, comb hair, wash and take the baby to clinic and school, they were great fathers who were broke. They only got scores of four out of 10 from both the children and the mothers.

“The fathers who were abroad who didn’t see their children for a very long period of time but make contact once per week got scores of 9 out of 10 and 10 out of 10. A father is being defined in terms of money, so it means, therefore, that that kind of structural and cultural definition of fatherhood itself becomes problematic immediately,” said Gayle.

He added that communication problems between spouses was often the basis behind fathers being brought to Family Court.

“Jamaican men, if they have a sense that they can’t continue having a relationship with the mother, they deny her money. It becomes a more powerful weapon. In a culture where we pin down a man’s importance to money, he uses the money to manipulate the woman in the same way she would have used sex to manipulate him,” said Gayle.