Seriously? It takes the state two full presidential terms to enforce a court order?
I was actually the good guy going to court this day. I have custody of my son; his mother is supposed to pay support, but historically, she hasn’t, and she has never paid for his medical coverage. Today the state was trying to make her provide health insurance, which sounds good in theory. However, this is a woman who changes jobs more than Chelsea Handler changes boyfriends, so I was afraid the job hopping would result in a lapse in medical coverage for my son.
Now I have been in a courtroom a time or two, so I was prepared for the boredom of the wait. I know boredom. I am a connoisseur of boredom. I worked at a college once where the auditorium was so small it had to split its graduation ceremony into two seatings like dinner on a cruise ship – minus the cocktails. During the second seating, all five speakers gave the same speeches verbatim as the first go around. This is the level of boredom I anticipated having to endure in child support court.
As I was parking my car, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a guy turning to enter the courthouse. Things began to look up. This guy was clearly here to make a good impression on the judge – as long as he didn’t have to stand up. He had followed his lawyer’s advice to wear a shirt and tie. I guess the lawyer forgot to mention dress pants and shoes. The guy had on ripped, stained blue jeans - holes in both knees – and ratty basketball shoes. I’m pretty sure I saw his left big toe sticking out. Then it dawned on me. I wouldn’t have to grade the freshman composition essays I brought with me. I could people watch. It would be… like last call, or the food court. Or the emergency room. And I had already seen the quality of the essays. Grading that whole stack made me feel queasy - like a soy sauce and pickle relish sandwich after an all nighter. I was in no mood to read the likes of “An Historical Comparison of the Jews and the Genitals.”
Once I found the right court room, I had to wait in line with 200 other people to get through the metal detector. I was lucky enough to get in line behind this one guy, who at 9:15 am reeked of Budweiser. Here’s a hint: If you are hoping for leniency from the judge, don’t show up smelling like a bar room floor mop, advertising your beverage of choice on your ball cap. You might want to rethink the Hooters’ T-shirt – even if it is autographed by “Leslie.” Also, it would help if you were able to support yourself without holding onto the wall. I’m just saying.
The line meandered around the court building hallways for the better part of an hour before I and Father Doesn’t Know Best got our turns at the metal detector. While he was stumbling his way through, I had a chance to see some of the stuff the bailiffs had already confiscated. As a friend of mine has pointed out, there is nothing wrong with being country. In fact, I was raised in the country myself. Growing up, we had to drive almost an hour in any direction to get a Happy Meal. Some of my favorite people are as country as they come. Having said that, let me now say that when you come to child support court, please leave your Buck knife in your pickup truck.
Lest you think I am not an equal opportunity smack talker, let me now direct your attention to the other episode at the metal detector. So you are saying that you cannot afford to pay child support, yet your Lil Jon gold rope is so thick it sends the metal detector into a fit of Morse code convulsions that lasts approximately the same amount of time it takes to sing the National Anthem? Then when the bailiffs ask you to remove it, you throw your back out? How about you just pay your child support and give your back a break. Silly Bands are much cheaper and lighter anyway.
I made my way into the court room. I’m 6’5” and I don’t want to be an easy target, so I found an empty seat in the middle of a row. I excused myself past a lovely black mother, who I came to mentally refer to as Glasses. I sat three seats down from Glasses and one row back from Hoop Earrings, or Hoops for short. I decided to bide my time and not make small talk just yet. A strong, black woman can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Personally, if I ever got drafted and sent to Iraq, I hope I would be assigned to a platoon of single black mothers. I would stand behind the most vocal one and tell her, “Girl, I heard the General say not to tell you, but he got a report that Al-Qaeda done snatched up your kids.” But since I am pushing 40 and could run the 40 yard dash in just under a semester, I don’t think I have to worry about being drafted.
A few minutes before the bailiff called court to order, a short guy came in and sat beside me.
“Man, ain’t this some shit?” new guy said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“This whole child support bullshit. It’s bad enough my ex is trying to clean me out, but I gotta come in here on my day off, too? That’s some shit, right there.”
“How much are you supposed to pay?”
“$300 a month. I’m lucky if I have enough money left on Fridays to get a freaking case of beer.”
“Well, at least you have your priorities straight,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“It means stop being a dumb ass and support your kids.”
At that, Glasses and Hoops both looked at each other and laughed. I was in.
Mad dad shuffled past me and picked another seat. I was overcome with grief at his departure.
In previous legal matters, I had to drive 3.5 hours each way to court in my baby’s mama’s home county. Considering it was always for something that was her fault, that drive perturbed me to say the least. When she moved out of the county, I secured a change of venue to the county where my son and I live. Because of that, this was the first time I was seeing this child support judge: a stern black woman who, peering out at the mostly ill-dressed, delinquent parents, already looked as if somebody had peed in her corn flakes. I could not have been happier.
After the prosecutor went through the docket, she began calling up cases. By far, the largest portion of child support court involves “Show Cause” cases in which a parent, in arrears on child support payments, must either pay up or explain why he or she has been unable to make the payments and beg the court’s mercy. I find it simply amazing that broke ass parents who are hundreds or thousands (in some cases, tens of thousands) of dollars behind on their child support can miraculously come up with a payment when jail time is threatened. Seriously, why does it take the threat of incarceration for you to take care of your responsibility? I think I actually verbalized that thought because Glasses and Hoops broke out simultaneously with “Mmmm hmmm. You right.”
Glasses, especially, was warming up to me. Her body language clearly said, “Ok, you are not the asshole I thought you were at first.” She and I, and then later Hoops, began cracking wise each time a new father came before the judge. I try to give men the benefit of the doubt on custody, but all except three cases did, in fact, involve men. Sorry, fellas, but if you can’t step up and be a man for your own kids, then I can’t get your back.
Each case seemed to involve a man fatter than the last, and I was expecting to be blinded in a cartoonish fashion by an exploding pants button. As part of establishing the facts, the prosecutor was obliged to read how much in arrears each parent was. I majored in English, but I do recognize statistical oddities when I see them. I am pretty sure there is a linear correlation between how much money a man is in arrears and how fucking fat he is. Seriously? When was the last time you got off the couch? Under the Bush administration? Senior, that is.
Among this sea of male couch potatoes, a woman’s case was called, an eight and half month pregnant woman. She waddled to the front. I glanced over at Glasses. Hoops looked back at both of us with wide eyes. All three of us sat up on the edge of our seats.
As the prosecutor read the facts of the case, the judge sat with her head down in a posture that said, “Jesus… Lord… help me!” When the prosecutor finished establishing the facts, the judge asked if there was anything the woman wanted to say.
“Well, I just got out the hospital last night, and I can’t work right now, and…”
“Hold on,” the judge interrupted. “How old are you?”
“And how many other children do you have other than the one you are carrying?”
Glasses did a head turn and fell back in her chair. Hoops shook her head with an “mmm mmm mmm.”
Addressing the defendant, the judge asked, “WHY are you still having children if you can’t support the ones you already have?”
I whispered to Glasses, “Damn, that’s a litter.”
Hoops shook her head with a “Lawd, child.”
The defendant opened her mouth as if to respond, but then closed it, and just shrugged her shoulders.
The judge responded by telling her to “go, just go. Go sit in the box over there.”
I whispered, “Look, she got a time out. Hope she doesn’t have that baby in the jury box.”
Glasses and Hoops squealed as quietly as it is possible for one to squeal.
I almost forgot I was there for a case of my own. When the prosecutor called my name, I stood, but my left leg had fallen asleep, and the resulting pins and needles almost sent me down to one knee. I played it off by reaching down for my
briefcase as Sean Connery as I could. Roughton. Dean Roughton.
I walked past glasses thinking to myself, I will not fall, I will not fall, I will not fall. All eyes were on me now.
The prosecutor read my motion asking for my son to remain on my insurance rather than requiring his mother to provide it, and as evidence, produced the photocopy of my insurance card I had given to my case worker two months prior. The judge granted the request, and I was done.
I turned and walked back up the aisle. Hoops gave me a nod, and Glasses gave me a big smile and a wave goodbye, which I returned. At the last row, I passed a guy with a diamond grill. I considered staying just to hear his case; I imagined the judge in another “Lord… Jesus… help me” moment as she ordered his grill auctioned off and the proceeds applied to his arrears. I really wanted to see that, but it was almost time for the judge to call recess for lunch, so I made a mental note to take a personal day from work on the next scheduled child support court date and come back.
As I was walking out, the prosecutor read the facts of the next case which led me to this conclusion: In North Carolina, if you have a ten dollar bill, you can pay for a court ordered DNA test and still buy one item from the McDonald’s value menu.
© 2010 Dean Roughton