Geraldine Jensen receives the Heinz Award for Public Policy for channeling her frustrations over an inability to collect child support for two young children into a national movement that reformed child support enforcement.
Geraldine Jensen is an improbable heroine. Over 20 years ago as a divorced mother of two sons, she found herself destitute, homeless and unable to support her family. Her ex-husband owed more than $12,000 in child support, but local officials rebuffed her pleas for help because her ex-husband had moved and could not be located. She did her own research to find his address and employment information, but officials said their hands were tied because he lived out of state. Finally, a local prosecutor complained, "I'm sick and tired of you women whining and complaining about your child support. If you think you can do a better job, go do it."
So she did just that.
With $8.86 of her last $12.00, Ms. Jensen purchased a small ad in the Sunday edition of the Toledo Blade newspaper saying, "Not Receiving Your Child Support? Call Me." A number of custodial parents in similar situations responded. She organized a meeting and within two weeks founded the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES).
Since that modest start, ACES has grown into the nation's largest child support organization, with 400 chapters in 48 states and more than 50,000 members nationwide. The organization has helped empower thousands of desperate custodial parents, most of them women, to obtain the money courts ordered paid for the support of their children. The federal Office of Child Support estimates that more than 20 million children are owed more than $83 billion in court-ordered child support. Many women, like Ms. Jensen herself, wind up on public welfare for a time because of non-support.
Ms. Jensen has also become a leading advocate of system reform. Under old laws, parents were not bound by child support orders of one state if they moved to another, and many non-custodial parents moved from state to state to dodge their responsibilities to their children. Ms. Jensen was a catalyst behind passage of the 1992 Child Support Recovery Act. That law makes it a federal offense to avoid child support if you live in a state other than where your children live. She has also been instrumental in the creation of a national computer network linking child support information from all the states, including laws that allow support to be collected through a payroll deduction. In 1995, ABC produced a made-for-television movie called Abandoned and Deceived, based on Ms. Jensen's struggle and the creation of ACES.
Geraldine Jensen embodies the uniquely American can-do spirit. She is a woman who found herself in a desperate situation but refused to be broken by the difficulties she faced. She took her own adversity and not only turned around her own life and the lives of her two sons but created a movement that has alleviated poverty for thousands of other children.
She has committed 20 years to ensure that the children of divorced parents do not become victims of poverty because of unpaid child support. Her vision and hard work have mobilized and inspired custodial parents and that convinced lawmakers to close loopholes and stiffen the penalties on deadbeat parents.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD
March 2004 - Jensen announces her retirement from the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, the organization that she founded in 1984. She will finish her last few months of her four-year term as president before stepping down in July, though she plans to retain a post on the board of directors after her retirement. - The Associated Press
January 2004 - Jensen and the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support publish a book entitled Child Support: A Complete Reference. The book addresses the implementation of child support on a national level.
October 2003 - Jensen's Association for Children for Enforcement of Support hosts a candlelight vigil to "Shine the Light of Justice for Forgotten Children". The national vigil is to honor the millions of children who are owed nearly $92.3 billion in child support that has gone unpaid.
Speech3/3/2003 - Acceptance Speech
I thank you, Teresa, and everyone at the Foundation. I am very honored by and appreciative of this recognition. I want to thank my sons, Matt and Jake, and all the children everywhere who are my reason and my inspiration.
From the very first time that ACES' parents sat around the kitchen table talking about their children's needs for child support, we knew that the solution was collecting child support just like taxes through payroll deduction. So parents working together got Democrats and Republicans to make this a reality. And income withholding laws and criminal no support laws have caused collections to double. And I'm pleased to report that the newest numbers are out, and we are up to 60 percent of the children receiving support. ACES' members, which are mainly single parents, very low income, are a living example of people wanting a hand up from government, instead of a hand out. We want effective child support enforcement for the 20 million children now owed 88 billion dollars. So much money has gone unpaid. So many childhoods lost to poverty. And yet, child support is still often a mere afterthought, part of a fatherhood program, or part of a public assistance program; not talked about in discussions about economic security in jobs, even though support is needed to supplement low wages of families leaving welfare; not part of healthcare even though millions of children don't but should have health insurance from their non-custodial parent; and not even part of discussions about childcare.
But families have always known that non-support is a leading cause of poverty, and that real solutions keep families off welfare to begin with. Some say that marriage is the solution. We would have fewer children born to never- married parents. This is true, yet 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Child support, taking care of our children, is the most important responsibility and privilege that we as parents have. It should be part of our very social fabric. It should be part of every policy affecting families, including the economy and taxes. When we talk about more money in the hands of more families, it should mean child support payments going to the families, rather than the government to pay back welfare. It should mean tax relief for families to take non-support as a bad debt and gain help from the IRS to collect on interstate cases. Supplementing collections for low-income parents and guaranteeing payments, is needed and possible with programs that are funded, like Fannie Mae. Parents working two jobs to put food on the table can't help kids with homework, read children a book, or provide teenagers the supervision they need. We need both parents to support children and society.
I realized long ago that I couldn't sell this problem alone. And so I do accept this award on behalf of all of the thousands of single parents involved in ACES across the country, because we build ACES, but we need your help. And we hope that you will join together with us to solve this problem and to make sure that every child receives the support that they so need and deserve.
Thank you very much.