MAXWELL:  “Deadbeat’ isn’t always the word

6/2/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Sociolinguists understand the power of language. They know that words, spoken and written, can empower and can destroy. They also know that when we want to marginalize a religious group, for example, we typically label that group a “cult.” Or when we want to improve the image, say, of “jocks,” a group traditionally viewed as being short on gray matter, we call them “student athletes.”

Often this principle is at work when we call men who do not pay child support “deadbeat dads.”

A few days ago, the following headline appeared in the St. Petersburg Times: “Deadbeat deterrence hits the road.” The story discussed Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles’ signing of a law that gives police on routine traffic stops the authority to arrest drivers who are delinquent on child support.

When we use dehumanizing language, we can easily take the next step into abusing the object of our contempt. In writing legislation to bring delinquent fathers to justice, Florida lawmakers routinely use imagery of chasing and snaring: “deadbeats on the run” and “casting a wider net.” The purposefulness of such language, in part, led Gov. Chiles to sign an onerous bill that will enable the state to use administrative orders _ instead of court orders _ to require genetic testing for non-custodial fathers to determine paternity.

As a father who pays child support, I believe that men must pay for the care of their children. But I worry that the media, advocacy groups and politicians pandering to public outcry against deadbeat dads are using degrading language to create a hateful environment that paints too broad a stroke, that has formed a new class of pariahs.

Am I saying that deadbeat dads should not be punished? Not at all. Men who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid their responsibilities should be jailed. However, in our overzealous use of negative language, we also demonize non-custodial fathers who love their children, who have mitigating circumstances in their lives, who face hostile judges who themselves have bought into the negative sociolinguistics that define deadbeat dads.

Consider the case of Pinellas County resident Nick Rougas. In 1988, according to court documents, he was ordered to pay $1,200 a month for his three children, more than state guidelines permitted. As a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Coast Guard, he was a flight instructor at Whitting Field near Pensacola. He was passed over for promotion, and the fleet of helicopters in which he flew was retired. Afterward, he was offered a ground transfer.

“When a pilot is given a ground job, your career in the Coast Guard is over,” Rougas said. “If I had taken the job, I couldn’t have kept my flying certificate current. Aviators must fly to remain current. As an aviator on the ground, I couldn’t earn retirement. They were going to push me out in about eight months anyway. I was worried about being unemployed when I found a job that would hire me under a Navy contract if I could start right away. I put in my papers to speed up my release from the military and took the job. I wanted to get started on a new career as a civilian aviator.”

On the new job as a helicopter pilot, Rougas, 40, earning only two-thirds of his military salary and bringing home $1,600 a month after taxes, hired an attorney to modify his child support. The attorney filed to reduce the monthly payment to an affordable level. After the attorney got nowhere, he hired another attorney two years ago and, again, was unable to get the payment modified. The ex-wife, a university professor, earns substantially more than her ex-husband. But she is fighting the modification.

Meanwhile, according to documents, Rougas’ company downsized, and he was furloughed. Currently, he is a sales representative and pilot for a medical supply company. After taxes, his take-home pay is about $925 a month, and he has fallen behind in support payments. He has made ends meet because his parents either give or lend him money.

And what about his children and his relationship with them?

“Instead of bringing my kids and me closer together, the courts have almost made it impossible for me to see them,” Rougas said. “I cannot afford to drive to Pensacola and get a hotel for a few nights and pay for meals for the kids and myself. And if I have them at my home _ which I may lose because of all of this _ I still have to pay $1,200 even though I support them for the whole month.

“I love my kids. I want to support them. If I don’t find a better-paying job soon, I might wind up behind bars. Entry-level airline jobs just don’t pay much _ if you can even get one, and I’ve applied everywhere. I simply want to be allowed to pay what I can afford right now. It’s been two years, and I’m still waiting to have my case heard in court. The attitude being sent is to pay up and just shut up.”

Tens of thousands of men, such as Nick Rougas, who want to do the right thing, who are supporting two households, are being impoverished by a system that is growing increasingly hostile to their plight. Meanwhile, the language of demonization spreads, smearing the guilty and innocent alike.

“I’m not a deadbeat dad,” Rougas said. “I’m just a dead-broke dad.”