Every few years, with great fanfare, the government stages a modern-day roundup reminiscent of the old West. "Most Wanted" lists go up, and posses of federal agents fan out across the nation in hot pursuit of the "worst of the worst" offenders.
These days, their quarry is not gun-toting outlaws. Instead, they're hunting down parents who refuse to pay child support. In the latest get-tough move this month, agents have arrested at least 69 fathers and one mother. Individually, those in this small group owe between $7,500 and $300,000. Collectively, their debts add up to $3.4 million.
These divorced or never-married parents might once have been devoted to their children, but now they are scorned as scofflaws. To them, and to other noncustodial mothers and fathers, the message from Washington is clear: Uncle Sam wants YOU to support your children.
That message is essential. Yet whenever this high-visibility game of "Gotcha!" makes front-page headlines, it quickly fades away.
The "Gotcha!" roundups also mask a basic question that seldom rates much public discussion: Why do noncustodial parents who earn a steady income refuse to honor that most basic parental responsibility, supporting their children?
Many of these nonpayers justify their actions on grounds that the mother of their children has cut off their contact.
"What happens too often is, Mom gets mad and withholds visitation," says Jeffrey Leving, a father's-rights attorney in Chicago. "Then the dad becomes angry and emotional, and he retaliates by withholding child support."
In other cases, the father has remarried and is supporting a new family. If money is tight, these children may take financial precedence over the first family.
Still other divorced parents may stop sending money if they think custodial parents are using child-support checks to buy a house or a new car, rather than spending it on the children. They want accountability and a say in how the money is used.