Her Dad Didn’t Pay Child Support. So This Austin Woman Helped Change The Texas Constitution.

May 23, 2019

Susan Morrison was two years old when her dad left.

Her mother, Eleanor, was left to care for Susan and her two siblings. The experience led Susan on a journey to change the Texas Constitution to make sure other kids didn't have the same experience she did growing up.

Her mom worked hard as head cashier at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, reporting income from across every department. It was a lot of responsibility – she handled receipts from the bowling alley, the officer's club and the swimming pools.

But money was tight for the family of four.

"She was the only college educated person in that office and yet she was paid a little bit above minimum wage," says Susan. "She lived paycheck to paycheck."

Susan Morrison (top right) and her sister, Nancy and brother, Richard, in 1961.
Credit Courtesy Susan Morrison

It wasn't until about 1968, when she was 10 years old, that Susan learned her dad wasn't paying the child support he was supposed to. She and her sister had asked to go to summer camp, and her mom couldn't afford it.

"My mom never said anything derogatory about my father. She didn't want us to have any negative feelings about him," Susan recalls. "So when she had to say that we couldn't afford it, you know, we asked why. So, she thought at that point we were old enough to know."

She says she wasn't angry at her dad – she was confused. 

"Because, I thought, 'We have laws in America. Why are the laws not making him pay?'"

Settled by debtors

For a long time, it was easy to dodge child support payments in Texas.

The state constitution specifically forbade involuntarily taking money out of someone's paycheck to pay back debt – including child support. Texas was only a handful of states that had this kind of prohibition. 

"Because our state was settled by a lot of debtors that were fleeing from creditors, they wanted to make sure that under no circumstances would anybody's paycheck ever be garnished – or money taken out involuntarily," Susan says. 

Article XVI, Section 28 of the Texas Constitution read: "No current wages for personal service shall ever be subject to garnishment."

In the decades after that section was ratified in 1876, plenty of people tried to change it.

The first time someone tried to loosen this restriction seems to be 1925. In 1961, the first attempt was made to specifically allow for garnishing wages for child support. That effort failed, as did subsequent efforts over the next 20 years.

Telling her story

In 1979, Susan was working at the Texas Capitol, scheduling committee meetings for the Speaker of the Texas House. One day, she noticed a posting for a bill that dealt with child support enforcement – and she decided to testify.

Susan told the lawmakers about how her mother was single, raising three kids on her own, and that her dad, who had retired from the U.S. Air Force, wasn't paying child support. She told lawmakers "it was harmful to families" to allow child support payments to go on unenforced. She says she testified for her mom.

"At that point my mother had suffered breast cancer," Susan says. "So, I think I was doing it for my mom."

The lawmakers listened intently – but ultimately, the bill failed.

"So at that point, I said to myself, 'If it takes my whole life, I'm going to make sure this is done.'"

Susan, her sister Nancy and their mother, Eleanor, in 1979.
Credit Courtesy Susan Morrison

After that job, Susan headed to UT to study government and she planned to go to law school. She took a class at UT called Legislative Process, where the students learned about how bills work their way through the state legislature. One of the assignments for the class was to draft and guide a bill through a mock legislative process – classmates would vote on each other's bills and, ultimately, they'd approve them or vote them down.

Susan knew exactly what she wanted to do: A constitutional amendment to allow garnishing wages for child support.

Her professor warned her against it, knowing it's real-world track record – and even its past failures in the class. But Susan was undaunted.

She rounded up support from her classmates by building goodwill and forming alliances – offering her vote in favor of their proposals in return for their support of hers. It worked – and the class passed her amendment.

"I think that gave me courage to go ahead and work on getting it passed for real."

Building support

Susan knew the odds were against her. She would need help – and a lawmaker to sponsor the legislation. She had a friend who worked for state Sen. Ray Farabee (D-Wichita Falls), and, in 1983, Farabee agreed to sponsor the resolution.

Lawmakers resisted, at first.

"Originally, it was seen as something liberal, because it was taking the freedom away from an earner's control over their paycheck," Susan says. "The way Sen. Farabee got the more conservative senators on board was to show monetarily how fiscally responsible it was."

He argued that many single-parent families were on welfare because the absent parent wasn't paying child support. According to a legislative analysis of the proposal, at that point, about 70 percent of people in Texas who owed child support – most of which were men – were not paying.

But Farabee – and the measure's House sponsor, state Rep. René Oliveira (D-Brownsville) – built support.

Eventually, state lawmakers in both houses approved the bill by a wide margin, sending it to Texas voters for approval.

Ahead of the vote in November 1983, there seemed to be a lot of political support for the referendum. (Texas' divorce rate peaked in 1981.)

Section 28 of Article XVI of the 1876 Texas Constitution that outlawed wage garnishment.
Credit Tarlton Law Library at UT Austin

"I think by the time the '80s came around, there were enough women in labor unions – and either they owed child support or they were owed child support by their ex – that they were in favor of it," says Susan. "So there wasn't the big push against it this time."

Voters approved the amendment by a vote of 79 percent to 21 percent.

Susan called her Mom to tell her the news.

"She was just so proud. And relieved, I think, that it was going to help so many women,” says Susan.

Eleanor got to vote for the amendment, but her breast cancer had returned. She died three months later.

Pay it forward

While all of this was going on – before the vote in November – something else was happening, too.

Somehow, she's not sure how, Susan's dad – Herbert Morrison, who she'd only met two times – heard about her crusade.

He got back in touch.

"It was only the third time we had seen him in my life. He showed up and said 'I want to pay at least some of the money I owe your mom,'" says Susan.

Susan and her siblings were all over 18 now, but Herbert, agreed to pay half of what he owed Eleanor – about $30,000. Eleanor accepted.

Because of that, Susan started talking to her dad more often.

He would come to see Susan and her siblings and they would go visit him in New Mexico, where he lived at the time. He'd write them letters; Susan and her siblings went to reunions with Herbert's family. But there was still an emotional distance.

They never directly talked about what Susan was doing with the child support law.

Herbert hadn't had any more kids since Susan, and he'd recently had a heart attack. Susan thinks the heart attack put things into perspective, that he only had a short time to get to know his kids.

In 1991, Herbert was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had moved into bones. Doctors gave him six months to live, and he wanted Susan to move to New Mexico to take care of him.

Susan told him she couldn't move to New Mexico, but she did rent a house in Austin where they could live together. In December, he moved in – living in the same house with Susan for the first time since she was two years old.

A family gathering at the house Susan rented for her and her dad in Austin in 1992, shortly before Herbert (seated, second from right) died.

"It was like living with a stranger…but it was worth it because the hospice people helped me get comfortable with him," says Susan.

In the months that followed, she learned all about her dad's life from him and people who would come to visit – a friend from his time living in Brazil, his Air Force co-pilot and Herbert's brother, Louis. She learned of his time on the family farm as a kid during the Great Depression, his experience in World War II – including his year as a prisoner of war in Germany.

It all made her wonder if there was a connection between the suffering in his early life and him abandoning her and her family.

"I think the deprivation made him feel like it just wasn't enough to be a family man."

Susan cared for Herbert for about seven months, before he was too sick to be at home. She was out of town the weekend he died in July of 1992.

In the end, Susan says she's forgiven her dad. She's at peace with his absence.

"Looking back at the age of 61, I try to live my life being grateful ... because we were so lucky that even though [my mom] got cancer, she survived 10 years... and she kept working," says Susan. "One reason I went to law school was to take care of her. I didn't get to do much of that ... she would have been glad that I took care of my dad, because that's how she raised us."

When it comes to child support – and what Susan did to change the law – she knows the system still isn't perfect. There are still many kids in Texas who aren't getting the financial support they deserve from one of their parents. But Susan hopes all her efforts at least helped some kids have a more secure childhood than she did.

"There's nothing better than a child feeling like both parents care," Susan says. "So that's what I'm hoping child support enforcement across the state does – is communicate that to the kids."