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U.S. News Archive
May 01 - May 06, 2001



This page contains news for the period May 01, 2001 through May 06, 2001.  

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Sunday, May 6, 2001

Wisconsin now has more ways to collect child support

A story published today by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Wisconsin's child support agencies think they now have their best opportunity to enforce payments from parents in arrears and reduce the sea of bad debt washing over the state's child support system with new tools at their disposal.

Those new tools are the result of the Federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

Without a court order, the Bureau of Child Support can attach a lien to houses and property. At the time of sale, the child support debt comes out of the proceeds.

Agencies can also seize bank and investment accounts now without court order. The back child support amount is deducted from the accounts.

Fishing, hunting, driving and even professional licenses can also be placed under suspension until the child support obligations are paid off.

"We are giving people every opportunity to come forward and settle up," said Rachel Biittner, with the state Department of Workforce Development. "But if you don't, we have the tools to get the money owed those families."

The child support lien docket started in October 2000. Anyone owing $30,000 was placed on the docket, but that threshold has been slowly lowered; as of Saturday, anyone who owes $15,000 will be placed on the docket, Biittner said.

John Hayes, Milwaukee County child support enforcement director, said his office recently collected $82,000 through the lien docket.

"Holy smokes, it's great," he said. "The money is just rolling in. It is an invaluable tool for us."

Washington County, on the other hand, netted $53,000 from one parent within the last few months, according to Assistant County Attorney Christine Ohlis. The man was living out of state and had been sent a letter about his debt.

He had been placed on the docket and he was selling property in Wisconsin," she said. "He contacted us to cooperate in getting the child support debt paid off."

That payment was part of $397,437 collected so far under the docket program statewide.

Ohlis said the administrative tools help make the most of her staff's time.

"I'd love to have a bigger budget and more staff and investigators, but that's not reality," she said. "The lien docket, license suspension - those types of programs are wonderful, and the result is that we're getting tougher."

While lien dockets have produced the quickest results for agents, two account seizures are pending, according to Biittner, with the owners of accounts recently receiving letters. One parent owes $47,000 and authorities will seize that amount from an account worth $500,000.

The license revocations will soon be fully implemented, she said. Local agencies will have full discretion on whether to suspend professional licenses, going after everyone from truckers to doctors. The agencies probably will use the tactic with some caution.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to take away a person's livelihood when you want them to pay child support," Biittner said.

When all else fails she said, there is always criminal prosecution to fall back on.

Saturday, May 5, 2001

Online visitation a new tool in divorce

A story released today by the Associated Press reports that for better or worse, the long-distance prowess of Internet technology is expected to play an expanding role as divorce cases reach America's courtrooms. The pivotal question: Should the prospect of ``virtual visitation'' -- through e-mail, instant messages and video-conferencing -- make it easier for a custodial parent to get permission to move?

A New Jersey appeals court broached this new legal frontier earlier this year. It ruled that online visiting would be a ``creative and innovative'' way for a father to stay in touch with his 9-year-old daughter if the man's ex-wife moved to California over his objections.

Even though the woman later decided against moving, the ruling intrigued family-law specialists and alarmed fathers-rights advocates.

``This will be another tool for judges to further distance fathers from their children's lives,'' said Stuart Miller of the American Fathers Coalition, whose group believes family courts are biased in favor of mothers.

Legal experts think it's inevitable that custodial parents seeking to move will propose virtual visitation in hopes of swaying judges.

``From now on, if I have clients who want to move, I'd tell them to offer to buy a (Web) camera and set that up,'' said Norma Trusch, a family-law attorney from Houston.

``It's true that you can't hug a computer,'' said Trusch, quoting a mantra of virtual visitation opponents. ``On the other hand, it's possible with these communication methods to maintain a very close, continual relationship with a child.''

Linda Elrod, who chairs the American Bar Association's family law section, said judges won't be able to ignore the new technology as they weigh conflicting pleas from divorced parents.

Many divorced parents already use virtual visitation -- not under court order but because it helps them maintain ties with faraway children.

Jim Buie, an Internet consultant from Takoma Park, Md., has published an online journal about his efforts to stay in touch with his son, Matthew -- now 17 -- in the eight years since Matthew and Buie's ex-wife moved to North Carolina.

``Virtual parenting is not a panacea. You're still going to have the heartache of not being together,'' Buie said. ``But, alas, it's better than no relationship at all.''

Robert Whitfield of Reston, Va., has tried using the Internet to sustain a long-distance relationship with two sons who moved with his ex-wife to New Jersey. He's concerned that court-ordered Web visits could hurt dads in the long run.

``Gaining access to their children for most fathers is difficult at best,'' Whitfield said. ``It is likely to become more difficult when a mother says to a judge: 'Johnny can talk to his father on the computer whenever he wants to.'''

No federal laws govern move-aways; they are resolved case by case based on court precedents and state legislation.

In recent years, some courts have made it easier for custodial parents to relocate. In California, for example, a parent simply needs to demonstrate that a move is in the child's best interest; in the past, there had to be urgent circumstances.

In other states, however, legislators have tightened move-away criteria. For example, requiring a longer advance notice before a custodial parent can move.

``We're afraid the Internet will be seen as a trend to make move-aways easier -- we want to make them harder,'' said David Levy, president of Children's Rights Council, which promotes the rights of noncustodial parents.

Richard Crouch, a Virginia lawyer who formerly chaired the ABA's child custody committee, said move-away cases have become ``part of the wars of sexual politics,'' with feminist groups pressing to make relocation more commonplace.

The co-president of the National Women's Law Center, Nancy Duff Campbell, said her Washington-based group believes courts should ease restrictions on move-aways.

``If there must be separation, it's something that can help the families,'' she said.

Friday, May 4, 2001

Texas doctors agree to urge abstinence as best for young, single patients

A story published today in the Houston Chronicle reports that Texas doctors agreed Friday to promote sexual abstinence as the best option for unmarried, adolescent patients shifting their strategy in the war on teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

At the annual meeting of the Texas Medical Association, delegates voted to change their policy to say "the healthiest and most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in unmarried adolescents is abstinence." Their old policy placed more emphasis on contraceptive choices.

"We hope this strong statement by the medical community will empower parents," said Dr. John Gill, a Dallas orthopedic surgeon who sponsored one of three pro-abstinence resolutions combined into the one approved.

"We're not afraid to take a stand on risky behaviors such as drugs, smoking and drinking and driving. There's no reason we should be afraid to take a stance on this."

Gill emphasized that the new policy is not abstinence only.

The policy is meant to guide TMA's public health advocacy efforts, not what individual doctors tell their patients in practice.

The sponsors cited a recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on adolescent sexual behavior as evidence of the need for policy change.

Of more than 15,000 adolescent students studied by the CDC, their report found that nearly half had had sexual intercourse and more than 16 percent had had sex with at least four partners.

The issue sparked a lively debate, not over whether sexual abstinence should be part of the policy but over its exact wording.

Dr. Jan Realini of San Antonio argued that saying abstinence is the "best" preventative behavior might be misinterpreted as "religious or moral stands," and that there isn't "scientific evidence" to say it is the "most effective."

Doctors approved the abstinence policy even though the committee that considered the three proposed resolutions had recommended deferring them to another committee for further study because of the lack of unambiguous data on the most effective methods of preventing pregnancy and disease.

But Dr. Roland Goertz, a Waco family practitioner and chairman of the committee that recommended deferral, said the final wording approved was his committee's fallback position.

Everyone on the committee, he said, agreed that abstinence needs to be better promoted but felt they didn't have time to craft the best mechanism for that.

Goertz said the committee will continue studying what are the next best methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

The TMA policy says many contraceptive methods are suitable for teen-agers, though there is "no ideal method that is 100 percent effective, free of side effects, inexpensive and unencumbered by forethought or planning." It calls on doctors to identify adolescents at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy.

AASP pushes for tax rights

A story published today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Kathleen O'Neill,a 45-year-old planning consultant from St. Paul, says that she and 82 million other single adult Americans have not been factored into the current tax debate.

oneil.jpg (6934 bytes)"I've noticed it since the presidential election," said O'Neill,  "With all the references to family, singles and unmarried Americans are just being dismissed." (A photo of O'Neill appears to the left.)

Democrats champion "working families"; Republicans honor "family values." But one mostly overlooked fact in the discussion of the so-called marriage penalty is that just as many married couples enjoy a "marriage bonus."

A three-day lobbying push this week by singles-rights organizations in Washington underscores how the tax debate has been pulled in opposite directions by two trends: the tremendous increase in the number of two-earner families and the rapid growth of nontraditional families led by unmarried people.

The Los Angeles-based AASP says singles also feel discrimination in estate taxes, which favor only spouses -- not domestic partners, friends, significant others, or even other relatives.

"If you give [the estate] to your spouse, it's OK," Knapik said. "But if you give it to anyone else, it's taxed."

There are those who are unapologetic about the tax code's bias in favor of marriage. Former Rep. Bill Archer, a Texas Republican who led the House Ways and Means Committee, once said of the tax disparity, "We unabashedly help stay-at-home moms."

The AASP, which has members in Minnesota, also lauds that goal, but notes that many single people also are raising kids. To help parents, it says, there are child tax credits.

What the AASP wants is a marriage-neutral tax code. AASP executive director Thomas Coleman asks, "why should Congress be trying to encourage or discourage that highly personal choice" of marriage?

One reason, he says, is that married people vote at higher rates than singles. Although single people make up 40 percent of the voting age population, he said, they were only 36 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election.

He also says that standing up for families makes political sense for many legislators. Take Minnesota Rep. Bill Luther, normally a loyal Democrat. Democratic leaders in Congress opposed Bush's proposal to reduce the marriage penalty, saying it cost too much and benefited even those married couples who don't pay a penalty.

But Luther's east Twin Cities suburban district has about 80,000 tax-paying married couples affected by the Bush plan, the largest number of any congressional district in the state. Last month, he joined 64 other House Democrats in voting for Bush's marriage tax relief.

Other Minnesota House members were more skeptical. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who sided with Bush on his across-the-board income tax rate cuts, nevertheless declined to defect from his party's ranks on marriage tax relief.

With delays in marriage, widespread divorce and women living longer, unmarried America also keeps growing. In 1970, the census counted 37.5 million unmarried adults, then 28 percent of all adults. In a 2000 census survey, the number of unmarried adults was more than 81.5 million, or 40 percent.

In Minnesota, single tax filers accounted for 48 percent of all tax returns in 1999, according to the state Revenue Department.

One of them was from O'Neill, who sees the tax advantages bestowed upon married couples as one of a number of subtle societal slights that treat singles as something less than whole people.

"On a basic level, we don't respect individuals to be what they want to be," O'Neill said. And while she's open to marriage, "we have to become more inclusive of what the American Dream can be."

Illinois premarital counseling bill fails in committee

A story published today by the Herald News reports that Chicago divorce lawyer Gemma Allen, believes that couples planning to marry should have to take four hours of Marriage 101 before their wedding day and she wants a state law to enforce it.

Such a bill passed in the Illinois Senate last month. But on Wednesday, it failed 8-4 in the House's civil judiciary committee, missing a key deadline. The bill is now being amended with hopes it can get an extension and pass this session.

One obstacle to this proposal has been the county clerks who oppose the plan. Enforcing it, they say, would create hardships. It's a mandate without money to carry it out. And Will County Clerk Jan Gould adds this question: Is it really the government's business, anyway?

But now, these opponents might be out of the equation. Allen understands many of their concerns, and is coming up with a revision that doesn't include county clerks.

Instead, judges or clergy people would find out if a person got premarital counseling, under an amended bill Allen is proposing.

Still, one concern doesn't carry any weight with Allen: the one about whether it's the government's business.

Nationwide, there are 1 million children affected each year by divorce, and $150 billion is spent in federal and state dollars to support and subsidize single-parent families.

"People say, 'I don't want government in marriage. Then teach people how to do it better. Once there's a divorce, government is all over marriage," Allen said.

The failed bill would have required couples to have four hours of premarital education to get their marriage license without delay. If couples refused the premarital education, they would have to wait 60 days before the county clerk would issue them a license.

"I can see this scenario," Gould said. "A couple coming in and having this big wedding planned. It's a first-class wedding, and I'm going to have to tell them ...they can't get married next week or next day because they don't have a (pre-marriage education) certificate."

Allen's amended bill would shorten the delay to 45 days and assign responsibilities to judges or clergy people.

Clerks would give out marriage licenses, but a clergy person or judge would request that couples sign an affidavit saying they took a premarital education class in order to get married within 45 days.

Licenses are valid for 60 days. If they have their premarital education, they can get married immediately or they can wait 45 days.

Allen said the amended version also would include people who are indigent and can't afford premarital education. They would be excluded from the requirement.

Allen said county clerks have agreed to put a handout in their booklet regarding the statute, but won't be required to implement it.

Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Rep. Mark Beaubien, R-Barrington Hills, are sponsoring the bill.

Pastor James Dougherty, of St. Paul of the Apostle Church in Joliet, thinks premarital counseling is a good idea.

"Marriage is for adults, and they need to assume the responsibilities and duties of marriage so we go into the areas of finance, spirituality, communication, conflict resolution, family planning and church attendance," Doughtery said.

Divorce has a lifelong effect on children, said Allen, who is divorced and remarried. "Children of divorce haven't seen enough people get through a lifetime commitment - they're adverse to commitment because they're afraid after seeing the pain of divorce," she said.

"We do know kids from divorced homes suffer as children, and they suffer as adults," said Jim Kubalewski, executive director of the Family Counseling Agency in Joliet. "When you divorce, that's not private anymore, and when children don't have parental support and father support, and are on public aid - that's not a private issue. It's a societal issue. When prisons are filled with men and woman who did not have fathers at home, this is a public issue."

Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Bush pushes reform of Social Security

A story published today by the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that President Bush made his case for private Social Security accounts Wednesday, saying younger workers "might as well be saving their money in their mattresses," considering the return they now get from the program's investments.

"And the return will only decline further, maybe even below zero if we do not proceed with reform," said Bush, who named a commission to recommend ways to fix the system. Members include both Republicans and Democrats who favor partially privatizing the federal retirement plan. Democratic leaders oppose that idea.

The commission is to present its findings to Bush in the fall, and should include a plan to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private accounts, he said. Any recommendation would be subject to congressional approval.

The White House acknowledged that Bush stacked the commission with members who favor privatization, saying "it should surprise no one" that Bush wanted a commission that would embrace his ideas about preserving Social Security.

Co-chairmen  for the commission will be former Democratic New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Richard Parsons, AOL Time Warner's co-chief operating officer.

"This is a stacked, completely orchestrated effort to come to a desired result," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

By 2016, Social Security is expected to start paying out more than it collects because of the increase of baby boom retirees. The fund will run out of cash after 2038.

Bush has proposed salvaging the program by letting younger workers voluntarily invest some of their payroll taxes in private accounts. Supporters say the stock market will provide a much greater return over time.

Opponents, however, point to recent stock market volatility as a reason not to have such accounts. They also argue the private accounts would drain too much money from the program.

"After the last six months in the stock market I am shocked that the president would really be trying to move forward with this proposal," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said.

The optimistic scenario is to get a bill to Congress by year's end for quick action before next year . But Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank promoting privatization, said that more realistically, the issue likely would be tackled in 2003.

Partial privatization of social security is one way to eliminate the system's unfairness to unmarried workers.  Under the current system, all benefits are forfeited when an unmarried worker dies, although a surviving spouse may collect benefits for many years after a married worker dies. With partial privatization, unmarried workers would own a portion of their benefits and could pass them on to a beneficiary after their death.

Some unmarried workers oppose the idea of partial privatization, however, fearing that unmarried workers who make bad investments will be worse off under such a system than they are with the current system.

Scholars with varying viewpoints dispel marriage myths and oversimplifications

A story published today by the Boston Globe reports that prominent scholars met in New York April 27-May 1 to explore differing views on marriage, divorce, and cohabitation. The conference, sponsored by the Council on Contemporary Families and organized around the theme, ''Beyond the Marriage Wars.''

The researchers noted that on average, married people are healthier and better off economically than single or divorced individuals, and their children do better psychologically. ''But when researchers study average outcomes,'' pointed out University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenburg, a senior research associate at the Council on Contemporary Families, ''we often overgeneralize about small differences that are not evenly distributed within the population we're discussing. When these differences are translated into sound bites, they produce excessive anxiety and guilt for parents and often result in bad public policy.''

For example, while happy marriages provide significant emotional rewards and health benefits, unhappy marriages do not, and they seem to harm women more than men, so that making divorce harder to get is not necessarily a protection for women. High conflict in a marriage, researchers agreed, is generally worse for kids than divorce, while children in low-conflict marriages are often disadvantaged by divorce.

But while panelists advocated providing more counseling for such parents, they rejected the idea of pressuring such couples into staying married.

CCF Research Fellow Philip Cowan, director of the Institute for Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley, also reported that in the longitudinal studies of married couples he and Carolyn Pape Cowan have investigated, some children in low-conflict, cold marriages perceived their parents as having high-conflict marriages. Robert-Jay Green, Director of the Alternative Families Project, commented that in his clinical experience, low-conflict, disengaged marriages often end in affairs, which might well turn them into high conflict marriages, the worst scenario for children, if they did not have the option to divorce.

As Cowan summed up the conference consensus, ''The debate on marriage so far has been polarized in ways that allow people on both sides to avoid thinking about the services families really need. One side says make divorce harder; the other says accept family diversity. These are cheap, easy, and ultimately ineffective responses. We need to help more marriages work by giving couples more access to counseling and alleviating the stresses they face in today's work world. But we also need ways to help stepfamilies succeed and unmarried or divorced parents work more effectively with their children.''

 Conference participants also pointed out several other facts and trends that are often distorted in popular debates over family life:

               -- Divorce rates are not at an all time high, but have fallen by 26 percent since their peak in 1981, according to sociologist Steven Nock of the University of Virginia.

               -- Almost half of the children in ''single parent'' families actually live with both biological parents, reported two separate researchers, Sarah McLanahan of Princeton University and Andrew Cherlin of John Hopkins.

               -- Marriage rates may be 43 percent lower today than in 1960, said Stephanie Coontz, national co-chair of CCF, but in 1890 they were also 43 percent lower than in 1960. ''It may make dramatic headlines, but it doesn't help us understand what's happening to marriage if we compare everything to the year when marriage rates reached their all-time historical high.''

               -- It's not marriage per se, but two-income marriages that protect children from economic reverses.

Barbara Risman, co-chair of CCF with Coontz, heralded the conference as a breakthrough for reasoned discussion over simplistic slogans, and vowed that the organization would try to reach the press and policy-makers to explain why ''today's family issues are too complex to be settled by one-size-fits-all responses.''

Pair fights 1846 Michigan law that won't let them marry

A story published today by the Detroit Free Press reports that Holly Garcia and Jerome Huizar's wedding plans came to a screeching halt last week when the couple went to apply for a marriage license and were told they couldn't legally wed.

Michigan law makes it illegal for a developmentally disabled person or a person with a guardian to marry. Huizar, who has Down syndrome and is mildly retarded, has a guardian. Garcia does not have a guardian, but is mildly retarded and has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition similar to Down.

Crushed at the rejection, Garcia and Huizar decided to fight back.

"Handicapped people have rights, too," Garcia said."People shouldn't stop anyone from getting married because they're handicapped."

Huizar, with the help of the nonprofit Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service Inc., filed a request in Tuscola County Probate Court to have his guardians, who are his brother and sister, removed.

He was unsuccessful and has appealed to the Tuscola Circuit Court.

Advocates for the disabled, meanwhile, are fighting to change state laws. Sen. Beverly Hammerstrom, R-Temperance, introduced a bill that would remove an 1846 law that makes it a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison for people it calls "imbeciles" to marry. The bill (Senate Bill 67) has made its way through the Senate and is expected to soon pass the House.

A second bill dealing with marriage for people with guardians was also introduced in March by Sen. Glenn Steil, R-Grand Rapids. This bill would permit a person with a guardian to marry while giving the guardian the opportunity to object. The bill is in a Senate committee and is expected to be worked on this summer.

People with guardians are considered legally incapacitated and therefore unable to enter into contracts. But Kathleen Harris, Huizar's attorney, said the contract of marriage is not like a financial contract.

"Marriage is a fundamental right. I don't think you can take it away from someone," she said.


Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Arizona legislators approve repeal of sex laws

A story published today by the Arizona Republic reports that seven years after lawmakers first tried to repeal the state's century-old sex laws, the Legislature on Monday approved taking the laws off the books.

With an 18-11 vote, the Senate gave their final approval to send House Bill 2016 to the governor.

"Lawmakers have finally recognized the inappropriateness of the government regulating behavior between consenting adults," said Kathie Gummere, a lobbyist for the Arizona Human Rights Fund, a group that supported the bill.

But the bill's fate on the governor's desk is unclear.

Francie Noyes, a spokesperson for Gov. Jane Hull, said that the governor has received more calls regarding archaic sex laws than any other issue this session, all urging Hull to veto the bill.

"The governor keeps her own counsel on these things, and she hasn't told anybody yet what she plans to do," Noyes said.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Steve May, R-Paradise Valley, repeals laws that make cohabitation, sodomy and any non-procreational sex acts illegal.

The bill deletes clauses that list "open and notorious cohabitation," the "infamous crime against nature" and any "lewd or  lascivious act . . . with the intent of arousing, appealing to or gratifying the lust, passion or sexual desires" as illegal.

The misdemeanor is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Under the new law, adultery would still remain a crime.

Critics called the bill an attack on the traditional family and immoral.

Sen. Scott Bundgaard, R-Glendale, voted against the bill, saying that repealing the laws would be akin to "normalizing the acts."

May said the laws are ambiguous and used as a discriminatory tool and keep unmarried couples from getting a tax break.

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