This article examines the roots of the disproportionate values the legal system assigns to paternal roles in the family law and child support system, looking to social norms, traditional family law, and the state's interests in the well-being of children. This hierarchy of values reveals itself in the current structure of child support laws and in the enforcement of parenting-time orders on the one hand and child support obligations on the other. The article considers how the allocation of disproportionate values impacts low-income fathers, mothers, children, and the state. The article envisions ways in which the family law system could implement changes that would reapportion value to these two paternal roles, recasting both child support and caretaking, when appropriate, as mutually important to children. This article considers changes to child support law and alternative approaches to the enforcement of custody, parenting time, and child support orders that would assist in equalizing the legal system's interest in the two paternal roles and ultimately, in stabilizing families. While equalizing the valuation of paternal roles could have a salutary effect on all families, this article focuses on changes to the system that would address the particular situation of low-income, noncustodial parents, since those parents are the least able, even in the face of coercion, to fulfill their breadwinner roles. In considering such initiatives, the article analyzes the collateral consequences of these changes and the possible benefits and detriments to mothers.
The dramatic rise of single parent families headed by women also suggests that our legal system needs to reconsider how to make more robust and relevant the role of the noncustodial parent. Such a shift in perspective could allow the breadwinner and caretaker roles to mutually reinforce one another, reduce barriers to low-income paternal engagement, liberate mothers from their sole caretaking role when desirable and positive for children, influence social norms that exacerbate father absence, and allow the state to better meet its goals of supporting children's well-being without excessive state expenditure. The article concludes that the legal system, as well as low-income mothers, fathers, and children, all stand to reap significant benefits from recalibrating these paternal values and adopting higher expectations for the noncustodial parent.
GW Paper Series
Laurie S. Kohn, Money Can’t Buy You Love: Valuing Contributions by Nonresidential Fathers, 81 Brook. L. Rev. 53 (2016).