State's tough policy applauded, criticized

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Fatal standoff spotlights issue of child support
State's tough policy applauded, criticized


With his solo marches against the current state of family law and
impassioned e-mails decrying child support as unconstitutional, Perry
Manley may have seemed, to some, beyond reason. But his 15-year
tirade against the legal system has, in the day after his violent
death, been held up as heroic by dozens of non-custodial parents.

Manley was shot to death by police officers at the federal courthouse
in Seattle on Monday after walking into the lobby with a hand
grenade. He was a regular presence there, filing lawsuits against a
system he considered biased against men.

Lawyers who practice family law here and advocates pushing the
Legislature to readdress parental rights sought to distance
themselves from Manley's act, but acknowledged that Washington is one
of the toughest, most inflexible states in the nation when it comes
to enforcing child support. Finding a parent in contempt for failing
to live up to court-ordered payments is common, they say, as is wage
garnisheeing and driver's license suspension.

The federal government has applauded this direction, rating
Washington seventh in the nation for determining paternity, tracking
down parents and enforcing payment. But a growing chorus asserts that
well-intentioned government efforts have crossed the line.

"Unfortunately Perry was pushed too far and went about things the
wrong way, but the underlying cause he was fighting for is a very
real problem today," said Joseph McGill, a friend of Manley's from
The Other Parent, a group that advocates for the rights of non-
custodial parents.

Depending on one's point of view, Olympia's policies have positioned
the state as either a committed defender of children or a punitive
task master.

"There's a lot of men out there who feel they really don't have a
voice, that there's nothing they can do," said B.J. Shea, who hosts a
radio talk show on men's issues, where Manley was a frequent guest.
His complaints, Shea said, always touched a nerve.

"It's amazing, the calls we would get," said Shea. "I think he knew
what was going to happen at the courthouse and that people would be
talking about all this afterward. It's probably what he hoped for."

Several legislators have floated new family court bills seeking to
encourage cooperation between parents on matters of custody and child
support, so far without success. Currently, child support payments
are determined by tabulating each parent's income, the number and
ages of the children in question and the relevant visitation
arrangements. Typically, a judge decrees the final monthly payment,
and there is little room for argument.


"Once you're in the system you cannot get hurt at work, you cannot be
out of work. They assume you're going to have a certain amount of
dollars on the table every month," said Mark Mahnkey, a poster on the
blog Hate Male, who knew Manley. "It's a tremendous burden. This guy
went to an extreme measure to get some attention to those issues. But
he's not the only one."

In the late 1990s, Washington also set up a Web site, the "Most
Wanted," as a final measure against parents who wouldn't pay up --
though it is recognized as a better means of public humiliation than
financial redress.

Adolfo Capestany, scheduled to take over as acting chief of the
state's Division of Child Support in July, is unapologetic about the
state's tactics. In fact, he is proud.

Washington collected $640 million in child support payments last
year -- about 62 percent of what was owed. The more money Washington
collects, Capestany added, the more federal funds the state gets.

Enforcement typically begins with wage garnishing -- as it did in
Manley's case -- but if a non-custodial parent continues to elude
officers, which Manley also did, enforcement measures can toughen
considerably. The state may intercept tax refunds, siphon money from
a bank account, suspend driver's licenses or seize and auction a
parent's car.

"We don't want to suspend people's licenses but it's effective in
getting people's attention," Capestany said, adding that much of the
fault lay with parents who run, refusing to stay in contact with
state officers to apprise them of intermittent payment difficulties.

For Manley, the issue was mainly one of principle, friends and
acquaintances said.

"He believed it was unconstitutional to force him to pay a second
person to raise his children," said Shea, the radio host. "He had no
problem raising his own children and he believed in shared custody."

Shared parenting, in which the mother and father each assume 50
percent of the duties and cover expenses on their own, has become the
rallying cry of fathers' rights activists. But child development
experts often caution that the arrangement can be disruptive and
confusing to children who may shuttle back and forth, one week on,
one week off, between homes.

Once set, it is nearly impossible to get courts to lower a mandated
child support payment -- even if a parent's income levels have
plummeted, several lawyers said.

"They call it imputed income, meaning that it's assumed, so that if a
person was once working as a computer programmer making $50,000 a
year and now he's working as a short-order cook -- barely making
minimum wage -- the court says you should always be able to be that
programmer and make that money," said Lisa Scott, a Bellevue attorney
who has specialized in family law since 1998. "That's a huge issue.
If you get behind in child support, it gets horrendously difficult to
get caught up."

In Manley's case, however, a court found that he was intentionally
underemployed to avoid paying child support.

Capestany of the Division of Child Support allowed that in years past
the agency was not as sensitive as it might have been when dealing
with parents in difficult circumstances. The department took a hard
line and sometimes failed to listen, he said. But these days, "it's
all about, 'What's in the best interest of the child?' "

Manley, to be sure, espoused views many would consider extreme. He
believed the pro-choice movement was unconstitutional because it gave
women rights that men do not have. A woman, for example, may decide
whether to abort, adopt or keep her child, while men, he felt, are
simply fathers, required to step up if she so demands.

In the aftermath of his death in front of a building he considered
symbolic of an unassailable legal system, a wide circle of Manley's
acquaintances were trying to focus on the larger point of his
message, not the way in which he chose to make it.

"Had someone heard Perry and given him an opportunity for involvement
in his children's lives, I don't think this would have happened,"
said Greg Howe, 39, a member of The Other Parent. "All of us who are
in this situation are not very far from him."

P-I reporter Claudia Rowe can be reached at 206-448-8320 or

Source 613-797-3237