The COVID-19 non-custodial parent blues

Damian Muse with his children

by JR Valrey, Black New World Journalists Society

Black people in the racist U.S. are typically the last people hired, first people fired. We have the biggest population infected with COVID-19, and we are the most likely to die from the virus or its complications. 

The COVID-19 virus pandemic quarantine “has been good, because jobs that are hiring, they’re hiring people that are willing to work. There’s no real delays. You can get on the job instantly. That’s the only real bonus of the quarantine,” said Damian Muse, 42, who was unemployed before the pandemic. 

The quarantine has been good to some Black people, including those driving for food delivery services, the few Black marijuana dispensary owners, and restaurant owners equipped and prepared to deal with the new, take-out-only COVID environment. 

“A lot of people aren’t needed (in person) at their jobs to make this world go. Do it from home if you can. I need the roads clear. People need their weed,” Damian Muse said amusingly. 

Essential workers who are willing – or forced – to work in the dangerous habitat of an unknown virus are becoming more valuable, while others depend on unemployment or live off of savings while they wait for the shelter-in-place to be fully lifted. Still others legitimately claim that they’re unnecessarily risking their lives by going back to the workplace. Many instead choose to work from home, quarantining until there is a widely accepted biological solution.

As a single father, Damian is a custodial parent to one of his children, while another lives with their mother. 

“Surviving with garnished wages is one of the hardest things for fathers, because we were not able to get the stimulus check if we were behind in child support. With me, I have custody of my daughter. So I wasn’t able to get my $1,200, and my daughter wasn’t able to get the extra $500 for the children, because her mother claimed her on last year’s taxes and that screwed everything up.”

Damian Muse proverbially claws to survive with his daughter on his back in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. “We’re just here struggling. I’m still paying support [for] my son, and that’s just taking all of the extra money that we were supposed to get from the government.” 

In Oakland, homeless advocates claim there are between 20,000 and 40,000 homeless people living within the borders of a town that has approximately 435,000 residents. Securing a roof over your head in the Bay means accomplishing a phenomenal feat, allowing one to simply breathe the same air as the tech wolves of Silicon Valley, whose presence has led to the mass gentrification of Oakland, San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area over the last two decades. 

“I’ve lived off credit cards for a month and a half. That’s basically how I survived: credit cards and odd jobs until I got this job delivering marijuana,” Damian explained. 

Although Black fathers are not the only people that make up the non-custodial parent class in society, a majority of Black children reside with their mothers after a family break-up, with some exceptions. 

“The system is catered to the custodial parent. They don’t follow the rules and procedures that they have for notifying you of court. It’s a big money grab,” said Damian Muse. “And it’s not just affecting Black fathers, but non-custodial single mothers, and white non-custodial parents too.

“It’s affecting us all, but Black fathers are the ones more likely to go to jail, have their license suspended, have their checks garnished. The system needs to be changed, so that it can be more fair to everybody. 

“My ex makes twice what I make, but I’m losing half of my check. Where can I get an apartment for less than $1,000 in California? I can’t,” said a frustrated and economically trapped Muse. “You have to look at, if you’re making $2,400, and they’re taking half in child support, how is a person supposed to live in a state like California, let alone the Bay Area?” 

I personally know many Black fathers throughout the state who are being strangled by child support orders, current policies and the local area’s housing crisis. 

I am among the ignorant public whose indoctrination and conditioning never allowed me to think outside of the box for a non-orthodox way to fight for my rights as a parent. 

“One thing that I would suggest to the child support agency, is that they need to go off of take-home income, after all the bills are paid, not gross income. Then determine child support off of disposable income because we still have to live,” said Muse.

Los Angeles-based attorney Sheryl Bailey has a few suggestions for brothas like Muse. “My advice to Black men is don’t ignore the paperwork. The biggest reason that Black men are disproportionately affected by child support garnishments is ignoring the paperwork because they believe that there is nothing they can do. But they can [make an impact] on the amount of payments by providing their financial information to the court and demanding joint physical custody.”

Many could care less about how the non-custodial parent makes ends meet, hiding behind the argument that Muse, other Black fathers and non-custodial parents like him should have used some form of protection. While there are male and female condoms on the market, the responsibility lies with both willing participants who conspired to conceive. 

“The custodial parent has to work too. A custodial parent shouldn’t be able to sit back and collect welfare and child support, and I am paying for both? If I got to work to pay it, you should be paying too,” said Muse. 

“The state calculates child support based on time spent with the child and the income of both parents [among other factors]. So you may be running from a child support order, but if you both make similar amounts of money and spend an equal amount of time with the child, the child support could be nominal,” said attorney Bailey, who transitioned her practice from family law to criminal law. “If you make significantly less than the other parent, and spend roughly the same amount of time, they could owe you child support. So don’t run from the paperwork.” 

My grandfather used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” I am among the ignorant public whose indoctrination and conditioning never allowed me to think outside of the box for a non-orthodox way to fight for my rights as a parent. 

“You can come up with your own agreement with the other parent and file it with the court. Every child support case [involves] mediation, and all mediation is, is coming to an agreement,” said attorney Bailey. 

“If you do that as soon as the child is born, and get it filed with the court, it becomes a binding order. If someone files for cash aid, they’re required to put the child support amount that you pay on that form. It could prevent you from having arrears [also known as past due or ‘back’ child support], or prevent threats between parents about stopping child visitation and filing for child support because there’s already a child support custody order,” attorney Bailey concluded.

These are just suggestions and should in no way be considered legal advice. If you aren’t already represented, there is a self-help center or family law facilitator in each family law courthouse who can explain the process and help you fill out paperwork. 

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of the Black New World Journalists Society, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. All stories related to COVID-19 were partially made possible by the Akonadi Fund #SoLoveCanWin.