Protecting a child's right to a healthy, loving upbringing is a key responsibility of family courts. Family courts often address children's rights by attempting to resolve family problems, not by handing out criminal sentences. They hear cases of child abuse and neglect and enforce payment of child support (money used to raise the child).
Parents are granted freedom to raise their children as they see fit in the Fourteenth Amendment. When biological parents disagree over how to raise a child—usually occurring in divorce proceedings—family courts step in to determine child custody and support matters. In situations other than divorce, courts may still determine parents are not acting in the best interests of their child. Parents can be considered unfit if they abuse their children in any way, including the denial of medical care or financial support. A judge can appoint a guardian in such situations as the court considers other remedies.
A crucial part of divorce proceedings is child support, the payments made by one parent to the other parent who has custody rights. Both parents have a legal responsibility to provide support to a child for basic needs. Most children in single parent homes have the right to support payments, which are usually provided in divorce rulings. Other forms of support, such as paying for a child's insurance coverage, can also be ordered by the court.
States are responsible for making sure parents satisfy their child support responsibilities, which are often complicated by jurisdictional (the area within which a government agency or court has legal authority) issues. Parents often move to other areas or states for jobs or to establish a new life. To help states keep track of families, Congress passed the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act of 1992, followed by the Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act of 1994. These acts created rules about handling custody cases that span state lines, such as allowing states to pursue parents who owe support payments, even if they have moved to another state.
States set guidelines for what is considered adequate support, which usually ends when children reach age twenty-one, marry, or are able to support themselves. Civil and criminal penalties can be assessed against parents who do not make their child support payments. Criminal penalties can include jail sentences and fines and are applied to repeat offenders. Those who cross a state line to avoid paying support may also face federal prosecution.
By the early 1990s concern over the nonpayment of court ordered support grew. A report in 1992 found that $27 billion in support had not been paid. The U.S. Department of Justice established the Office of Child Support Enforcement to help states recover support dollars. The number of cases was enormous and forced states to find ways to collect support payments, such as claiming part of a parent's paycheck, charging fines, seizing owned property, even taking away a nonpaying parent's driver's license.