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.
Ronald Isaacs, an attorney and founder of Fathers' Rights Foundation in Baton Rouge, La., calls this lack of accountability an oddity in the law. In all other cases where people serve as a guardian over someone's money, he notes, they must file an annual report with the court showing how they spent the money.
State child-support agencies cause other problems. Mathematical errors or computer glitches can ring up incorrect amounts on bills. These mistakes can be hard to get corrected, family experts say.
Other conscientious parents fall seriously behind in child support when they lose their job. Although unemployment makes them eligible for lower payments, bureaucracy often produces delays. The money they owe mounts quickly. States also add interest and sometimes penalties.
"We need to make it easier for fathers who lose their jobs or become disabled or ill to get reductions," says Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Families. The same is true for noncustodial mothers.
Roundups also ignore the problems welfare mothers face. If a father pays child support, most of it goes to the state, not the mother, to offset the benefits she receives housing, welfare, food stamps.
Isaacs offers an example: If a father is paying $200 a month in child support, only about $50 might go to the mother. "There's no incentive for these low-income people to pay child support. They're better off just paying the mother."
Mr. Leving and others argue that child-support problems will not be solved by suspending driver's and professional licenses, intercepting income tax refunds, seizing assets, booting cars, and taking away hunting and fishing licenses.
Nor will roundups and high-profile arrests trumpeted on page 1 ultimately make a big difference.
What will help? Some solutions lie within the family.
Government studies show that involved parents with joint custody pay support more than 90 percent of the time. If they don't have visitation, it falls to less than 50 percent.
"The best way in the world to collect support is to keep the father involved with the child," Isaacs says.
He also urges custodial parents to provide a voluntary accounting of how they spend child-support money every year.
Some fathers want an end to what appears to be a double standard in the legal system.
"They throw fathers in jail for not paying support," Isaacs says. "But they don't throw mothers in jail for denying visitation. If the courts would enforce visitation orders with the same vigor that they enforce child support, they would get a lot more money than they do by going after these few people."
Child support represents big money. In 2000, the government collected $18 billion in payments. That same year, states and the federal government spent $4.5 billion to enforce child-support payments.
Several times, when I've interviewed divorced fathers, men have cried quietly as they told of being locked out of their children's homes and lives. Although some had been tempted to stop sending money, their love for their children prevailed.
"Just because I'm mad at my ex, I can't take it out on my kids," one father in St. Paul, Minn., said.
If more divorced parents shared that attitude, upaid support bills would decrease.
Every story has two sides, of course. Custodial parents who believe they have valid reasons for denying visitation, such as fears of abusive behavior, deserve to have their voices and concerns heard.
But grievances need to be resolved in court or by mediators, not individually on the basis of revenge. Withholding money only makes children innocent pawns caught between warring parents.
If the government really wants to help solve the child-support problem, Leving says, it needs to promote the importance of fatherhood and convince mothers to allow visitation. "That will stabilize not only the children but the broken family relationships."
That, in turn, could mark the beginning of a new era of parental responsibility. It could help to eliminate the word "deadbeat" from the vocabulary of the American family, even making "Gunsmoke"-style roundups passé.