Cristina never expected life to be uncomplicated. The divorced mother of two special-needs children has her hands full raising her kids by herself, finding appropriate care and education for them and monitoring their progress.
What she didn't expect, however, was to be doing all of it and struggling to pay bills at the same time. The children are supposed to be supported by their absent but financially well-to-do father. It hasn't worked out that way.
In a frustrating turn of events that is affecting an increasing number of broken families in America, Cristina can't collect thousands of dollars in child support owed by her ex-husband. Like many other abandoned spouses and children, Cristina has come up hard against the legal wall that protects deadbeat dads who have taken up residence in foreign countries.
There's no Federal International Child Support Agreement with Mexico, where Cristina's ex fled after their divorce. Furthermore, at the state level, her home state of Florida has no arrangement with Mexico to enforce support judgments. Federal law provides that states may enter into reciprocal arrangements for the establishment and enforcement of support obligations with foreign countries -- to the extent consistent with Federal law.
Cristina and others across the country live in a frustrating, legal twilight zone that year after year goes uncorrected. In a cruel twist, Cristina's ex-husband, like many former spouses now living abroad, can file unlimited absentee nuisance complaints to which their American former spouse must respond, or face contempt charges.
Of all the official independent 195 countries on the planet, only Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, El Salvador, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Switzerland, The United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland have support enforcement treaties with the U.S.
Conspicuously absent is Mexico - and that entire looming continent below us called South America. And don't forget that other continent - Africa.
But simply because they are hidden behind a border, that doesn't stop Cristina's husband and others like him from peppering their custodial spouses with legal paper. He is perfectly free to "show cause" his long-suffering spouse over every nickel-and-dime issue. And she must appear to defend herself or face contempt of court charges that could put her in jail.
The simple trick: the deadbeat dad simply hires a U.S. lawyer to stand in for him.
In the case of Cristina, she has been harassed through the courts for, by way of just one example, failing to allow a phone call between the father and his oldest son. Dragged before the court to show cause why she should not be held in contempt, her explanation was straightforward. She held the phone out to her disgusted son who refused to talk with his father.
For this wasteful and unnecessary exercise, the working mother had to take leave from her job, hire an attorney and pay his fee -- and face up to the nervous prostration that always accompanies any trip to the courthouse. She owes thousands of dollars to attorneys.
When you bounce this inequity off the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the feedback reverberates with the agency's own deep frustration over diplomatic initiatives gone unrequited.
"With the ever-increasing number of people crossing and re-crossing international boundaries in this global economy, it is increasingly important that nations cooperate to meet those challenges," say the officials at HHS.
There are an increasing number of U.S. child support cases involving a parent in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central or South America, the officials add.
"The U.S. is especially interested in developing arrangements with neighbor countries so it can routinely enforce child support obligations owed between U.S. residents and residents of other countries in the region.
Absent a bilateral agreement or some similar arrangement, it is often difficult and costly, if not impossible to enforce child support obligations in another country, admit HHS officials.
In recent years, the U.S. has undertaken an initiative to enter into federal reciprocal child support enforcement agreements -- as directed by the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act -- with other countries so that child support obligations owed to U.S. residents by residents of other countries can be enforced in those countries and vice- versa.
In Spring 2003, by example, the Department of State directed U.S. embassies throughout the Americas to hold discussions on the U.S. international child support initiative, to obtain information from host governments concerning their child support systems and their interest in discussing a federal level reciprocity agreement with the U.S., and to invite host governments to send one or two officials knowledgeable about the country's child support system to the Meeting of the Americas.
Despite such initiatives, the list of nations offering full comity for U.S. support orders has crawled over the years from eight to only 15.
Meanwhile, Cristina wonders when the next process server will arrive at her door.
Making just enough salary to keep her from getting welfare benefits for herself and her children, Cristina has had trouble keeping up with the mortgage on her home.
Dead-beat dad hasn't paid child support or alimony for the last 3 years and Cristina's house is headed for foreclosure. All this hardship despite the fact that dead-beat dad has a court order directing him to pay support of $11,000.00 a month -- based on his income of $975,000.00.
The latest legal harassment from the dead-beat dad springs from his now wanting his sons to be flown to Mexico. The one 14 year-old who is able-bodied enough to make the trip says he won't go. "I'm scared to death," is his emotional response.
Meanwhile, the magistrate with cognizance over the case still has to deal with the motions that come into his court from the dead-beat dad's hired guns.
Cristina is left wondering why the absentee is allowed all these days in court when he doesn't have clean hands. Why doesn't the court just tell the absentee dead-beat that he must pay up before making demands on the court to enforce visitation?
A local attorney offered only, "Everybody is entitled to a hearing, his or her day in court. That's the way it is in America."
According to the Federal Office of Child Support's last accounting, $96 billion in accumulated unpaid support was due to children in the United States; 68 percent of child support cases were in arrears. An overwhelming majority of children, particularly minorities, living in single-parent homes where child support is not paid live in poverty.
How many deadbeat parents reside in foreign countries is yet an unknown statistic.
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