Baby-Mama Drama and Deadbeat Dads
During a recent 15-minute segment on Power 105's Ed Lover Morning Show, Cathy Middleton fields calls coming in on the jammed switchboard.
"She's our most popular guest outside of celebrity artists that come to the show," Jennifer Romero, a screener handling the calls says about Middleton, who is also a regular guest of Wendy Williams at WBLS and Michael Baisden on his syndicated show.
A woman named Melissa calls in to the show with a typical question: "My baby's father owes arrears," she says, "but I don't want to collect them because he has been doing really well in paying child support."
Now it's true that Middleton has a book called Girl, Get That Child Support: The Baby Mama's Guide to Tracking Down a Deadbeat, Finding His Cash and Making Him Pay Every Dollar He Owes You, but she's actually less one-sided than the title implies. Middleton has not only helped hundreds of women track down their deadbeat baby daddies, but she's also helped men get out from under onerous demands from their baby mamas. It's the babies that matter, and sometimes, she argues, a baby mama should consider being more lenient than a court of law.
Middleton explains to Melissa that under federal law, arrears can't be waived by Family Court. "The only person who can is you. Go down to the court and file paperwork to have his arrears waived."
Next up is a father named Terrence: "Do I get to stop paying child support when my kid turns 18—or 21?"
Middleton explains that it depends what his child is up to: "In New York State, you are no longer liable at age 18 if they are no longer in school and are economically independent, working," she says. "It is 21 if they are in college or still in school."
A woman named Laura gets through next: "If the father gets married, does his wife's income factor into my child-support payment? I know he's making more money, and now I have to pay $300 a month for health insurance."
Sorry, Laura—your baby daddy's new squeeze isn't responsible for her new husband's existing children. In fact, the game changes if the new couple start having babies of their own, Middleton explains. "Now, if he and his wife have a child, they have every right to go to court and have the judgment modified down. It sounds like you need to call me."
And that's just what many of Ed Lover's listeners do after Middleton leaves the studio. After a typical radio appearance, she gets about 50 calls from people inquiring into her legal services. And those potential clients are what make the trip to the studio worth it—even when she used to set out at 5 a.m. on the two-hour drive from Long Island to Philadephia for her regular appearances on a radio station there. The trip downtown to Power 105 is much easier.
Middleton says that her firm, Middleton & Middleton, grossed $105,000 last year with a caseload that is 90 percent child-support and custody matters. "It's a decent living," says the 39-year-old, who gives the impression she'd be happy with less: She doesn't wear flashy jewelry, doesn't have a cell phone (she has yet to replace the one she lost), wears sensible shoes, and has her hair pulled back into a bun. And there's no diva attitude.
Middleton & Middleton is a firm of one: Her sister, who was her partner, died of cancer a decade ago, but Middleton still says "we." She has one assistant and spends three days a week meeting with clients in her storefront office in the Laurelton section of Queens, where she grew up. Next-door is a day-care center owned by her parents, and across the street is an annex to the day care, which is run by another sister, a teacher. The comedian Chris Rock is her first cousin, though they aren't close. Middleton attended Temple Law School, and her husband is a lawyer as well. (They have one child.)
She's been practicing law for 15 years, but about six years ago, she saw a growing demand in the area of child-support law. "The number of child-support cases was increasing, and the larger society didn't realize this was a major breakdown in our family structure, especially within the African-American family. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock," she says.
Business grew by word of mouth, as frustrated parents unclear about how the system worked began to find her. And now she's a budding radio star who is also in talks for appearances on the TV shows of Dr. Phil and ex–Jerry Springer bouncer Steve Wilkos.
"Everybody either has a child, is dating someone who has a child by another partner, or is related to someone who is going through it. In my case, my brother is going through child-support issues, so I see it," says Sarah O'Conner, the producer who books her for Ed Lover's show. "Cathy is very informative on how the law is designed and how it varies from state to state."
Middleton herself admits to being drawn to the drama of Family Court. "I'll admit I'm nosy, and I like to know what's going on in people's lives ever since I was a little kid. But when you're in my position, you see that most of this can be resolved if people just communicated."
And about that statistic, Middleton is correct: In 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69.9 percent of black women who gave birth were unmarried. The number was 48 percent for Hispanic mothers and 25 percent for white moms.
"I've thought about this extensively, as to why this is happening at such an alarming rate, but there isn't one answer," Middleton says. "Back in the 1980s, a theory began to circulate that there was a black-men shortage. Women became so eager to have a relationship and children that they were willing to accept less than the white picket fence and marriage."
The media hype was incessant: Black men were either in prison or dying early. Women, conditioned by those stories, began to think it was normal to share what men were still around with several other women, Middleton says. And men, in turn, knew that they were in demand.
"A lot of brothers are taking advantage of the situation and are acting like kids—running around like kids in a candy store. There's no sense of responsibility, remorse, or understanding of the long-term impact on the kids," she says. "I've heard the excuse that black men don't get married because they don't make enough money. I represent men who make $50,000 to $60,000 a year working for UPS or as a corrections officer. Somehow, their thinking is that marriage isn't something they need to do right now. They're afraid of the permanency of marriage."
Women, meanwhile, eventually realize they've been taken advantage of. "A lot of women are embittered by the men who [feel they] can come and go, and are using child support to get back at the guys. In a lot of cases, they need it—but some don't."
If couples would only wait, even just three months, before having unprotected sex, it could make a crucial difference, Middleton says. "If you just dated them and got to know them—how do they operate and deal with their own mother, is he responsible, all those things you need time to uncover"—then, she argues, that percentage of out-of-wedlock births would go down. Middleton speaks of clients who are having problems with their partners that could've easily been spotted if they'd only waited a bit before having kids.
"We have to get back to the business of planning out relationships, marriage, and children," she says.
She sees some of the same issues with her Latino clients—but with white clients, she says, it's a different story. "With the white clients who come to me, it's to fight for child support after a divorce proceeding—it's rarely that they weren't married to begin with."
But some of the stories she hears from black clients leave her shaking her head, she adds. There was one young woman who couldn't be helped because she didn't know her baby daddy's full name, address, or where he worked, let alone his date of birth or Social Security number.
"The relationships out of which they bring the children are so weak," she says. Even when both partners can be located, it's often a struggle just to get them to share information. "It's hard to sit across the table and talk about the needs of the child. Each of them is so suspicious."
Myrna Figaro thought she knew her boyfriend of two years. His family had come to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. The two of them had discussed marriage, and when she became pregnant, he told her it was "a gift from God." She thought she'd finally found her ideal partner.
"Two weeks after our daughter was born, I found out he was married and his wife was six months pregnant," Figaro says. "The lie went so deep. He came off as a church-going person. We went to church together. He did the church books. He spent nights with me. I stayed at his mother's house, where he told me he lived—she was in on the lie, too."
Once his double life was revealed, the man refused to speak to Figaro. Instead, she found herself dealing with his wife, who demanded a paternity test even though her husband had signed the birth certificate. Then all financial help ended. Figaro hired Middleton and filed for child support. "I filed in March 2007," Figaro remembers. "His wife filed in April. I think it was just a scam to secure a certain amount of money coming into their household." Figaro's monthly child support is currently $800. (In New York, child support is calculated at 17 percent of the non-custodial parent's income—25 percent for two children, 29 percent for three, and so on. But each subsequent case filed against the same person receives less than the first case, which is why, in the case of men with more than one baby mama, there can be a rush to the courthouse to file first and get a larger cut.)
Working full-time and paying for full-time child care, Figaro never imagined that her life would turn out like this. "I waited until I was in my thirties to have my first child. I have a career and an education—but this is over a year now, and I'm struggling." Unlike many of the mothers that Middleton deals with, however, Figaro has nothing negative to say about her baby's father. "I just wish men had a sense of communication. If he had said, 'I'm married, do you still want to get with me?'—at least give me that choice."
Bryant Andrews is a bus driver with the MTA who wanted to have his child-support judgment modified. "The lawyer I had wasn't productive enough for me," says Andrews, who was initially paying $397 every two weeks for his now-18-year-old daughter. After he had to take medical leave from work for an operation on a brain tumor, his payments went into arrears and jumped to $699 biweekly, plus penalties. "They weren't fair on the man's behalf, and everything was geared on the woman's behalf," he says. "It seemed like they were trying to destroy me. They wanted to make the woman feel like she was on a pedestal and I was nothing."
After hearing Middleton on the radio, Andrews fired his $300-per-court-appearance lawyer and hired Middleton, who charges double that amount. "My daughter is not in college," he says. "She has a job . . . why should I still pay child support? The way my payment stood, it was a very serious financial blow. I had no way of being a father figure to my daughter because I was so busy chasing my own survival. Half of the time, I didn't have any money to go see my daughter."
In two court appearances, Middleton was able to settle Andrews's case. He no longer has to pay child support. "The feeling among most courts is that basically the father is trying to avoid payment and the mother is trying to support the child," says Middleton. "Generally speaking, when a man comes in to reduce child support, it is hard if he doesn't have legal representation."
Middleton has seen an increase in men who want to battle for their rights in court. She tells the story of a male client, a detective with the NYPD, whose paycheck was garnished at such a rate that he was left with $10 every two weeks. She was able to win him a downward modification.
The growth in male clients led Middleton to write a second book: Boy, Watch That Child Support: How to Keep a Gold Digger From Draining Your Pockets Dry.
'I had e-mails from lawyers across the nation that the title was so ghetto," Middleton says about Girl, Get That Child Support, which drew mixed responses from other attorneys. "There were lawyers who felt like it was a good idea, and others thought it was a topic not worth a discussion—the airing out the dirty laundry of black people."
Middleton divides the 187 pages of her first book into chapters like "Who's Your Daddy?" and "Tracking Down Your Deadbeat Dad." A glossary defines the legal terms, and an appendix gives addresses for child-support agencies in all 50 states, as well as a description of how each state calculates support payments.
"It had to be something that wasn't intimidating," Middleton says. "From common people, that's where I got the positive feedback. They would contact me and tell me they studied the book." Middleton makes no apology for targeting blacks and Latinos, who make up about 85 percent of her clientele, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens.
"When I walk into Family Court," she says, "the faces I primarily see look like mine."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.