For children, child support can’t buy peace of mind

Sara Perkins
December 30, 2007 – 3:14PM

This is part of the second installment of "Cheating the Children: A look at the Texas Child Support System," a two-day series running in The Monitor.

 McALLEN — Leo Cruz’s child-support arrangement has left him unable to take his preteen daughters to the movies, or out for ice cream.

 When they visit him on alternate weekends, he saves up cash to buy groceries.

 His daughters — 12, 11 and 8 — tell him it’s all right, that they don’t need anything.

 “Bless their hearts, they know I’m on a budget,” says Cruz, 32.

 “When I have them on the weekends, they say ‘No, it’s OK, we don’t have to (go out).’”

 He and his ex-wife try not to argue about money or their own problems in front of the girls.

 He recently lost his job and now works as a paramedic at less than half his previous salary. The Attorney General’s office is slowly processing the paperwork marking the salary decrease; until they do, his child-support payments will be based on his old income.

 Regardless, Cruz — whose own parents divorced when he was 17, and whose mother had to go to court to win support payments for his two younger sisters — said he believes child support is “a positive, not a negative.”

 But like most parents, he worries about the effect the situation will have on his children, now and in the long run.

Bare dollars and cents
 Whichever way the child-support system is sized up, its basic premise is clear — to ensure that non-custodial parents share the financial responsibility of raising a child.

 However, the way parents work through the system and interact with one another can play into the kind of men and women their sons and daughters will become. The state system only takes care of the bare dollars and cents; it can do little to mitigate the effects of parental breakups and fights on children, experts say.

 Those effects vary as widely as family situations themselves. Family counselors and parents say young adults may choose to act out their anger, or they may turn inward.

 “Kids, they feel very responsible,” says Laura Treviño, both a divorced mother and former counselor for at-risk youth.

 “Parents sometimes really don’t understand the damage and guilt they’re causing their children.”

 Treviño has seen children take responsibility for arguments, or stop asking for new clothes, toys or treats because they hope to avoid tension between their parents.

 Sometimes, the effects of family strife may not surface for years. As children reach adolescence, they begin to better understand memories and situations that as children they ignored or considered normal.

Mental connections
 Peers — and depictions of American family life in the media — add context and expectations where before, there was none, says Andoni Zagouris, a psychologist with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district.

 For children with a delinquent parent, the realization that their home life is different from friends with two parents or those who receive regular child support can lead to anger and frustration, denial or poor self-esteem, Zagouris said.

 “Kids who act out, delinquency — most of this is payback. ‘If my daddy’s irresponsible, I guess I can be, too. I’ll show that jerk,’” he said.

 Other students he has counseled take out their sense of abandonment on the parent who cares for them, or idealize “deadbeat” dads.

 “Kids don’t have a logical perspective on who’s bad and who’s good,” Zagouris said. “Their perspectives are fantasy-based.”

 Also, “if they really admitted that daddy was no good, they’d feel no good.”

 Treviño notes, “Our history doesn’t dictate who we are. But it does contribute to who we become.”

 And while those contributions can be negative, sparking anxiety or behavioral problems, they don’t have to be.

Life’s lessons
 Treviño says her daughter is independent and self-propelled, sometimes to the point where her mother feels superfluous.

 Jesse Contreras said he transformed his anger at his absentee, abusive stepfather into a strong sense of responsibility.

 It has made him hyperaware of the need to support and maintain relationships with his children, to try to teach them to have healthy attitudes toward money and relationships.

 Contreras, a Mercedes attorney running for the 449th District Court bench in Hidalgo County, pays support to his first wife while raising another child with his second.

 “I didn’t enjoy a normal childhood,” he says. “I had responsibilities. But it added to my character.”

 Cruz has found a similar upside to his difficult financial situation.

 His daughters, he says, know the value of a dollar in a way many American children do not.

 “I don’t want them to stress over it,” he says, “[but] I think subconsciously, after going through something like that, I think they’ll become a little more aware of prices.

 “I don’t really mind that they know at a young age that money’s hard to come by.”
 Sara Perkins covers Mission, western Hidalgo County, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4472.