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Posts tagged ‘back child support’

Arizona Child Support Lien Screwup Infuriates Thousands

old-techThousands of Arizona residents that paid off their child support debt continued to be marked as subject to property liens because of a state Department of Economic Security screwup. The ongoing furor finally drove the agency to do something about the problem, according to insiders. Dozens of people had to be hired to help figure it out. Officials say the problem is “almost fixed.”

When asked about the snafu, DES officials acknowledged that a lengthy review of closed, past-due child support cases completed last year showed that 8,241 people should have had their liens removed. The agency also determined that 14,016 open child support cases need to be audited for liens that should be released; that review will occur sometime this year.

court orderThe state has about 321,000 active child support cases, with the state and county splitting them roughly in half. Besides typical cases, the state automatically receives cases that involve federally assisted foster care, as well as recipients of Medicaid  or welfare. Under previous rules, if someone ordered to pay child support were to fall more than two months behind, an administrative lien would be placed on all current and future property they own. (The state recently changed that to four months.) It is claimed that the lien prevents the person from selling the property, typically a home, until the past-due payments are satisfied. That isn’t exactly true as long as the payment is made before the house closes. If a parent who paid the past-due amount attempts to buy or sell and home and finds that a lien hasn’t been released, a title or mortgage company can submit a request to DES’ Division of Child Support Services, which sends the proper information to the companies “within 48 hours.”

The problem was that “liens were not properly tracked and documented,” according to information provided by Tasya Peterson, DES spokeswoman. Computer hardware from the 1980s at the agency, including a mainframe ATLAS system, “allows for user entry errors.”

homelessAt terminals with green monochrome monitors, workers over the years tracked only court-ordered liens in the archaic computer system, then later switched to tracking both court-ordered and the DES administrative liens, confusing the process. The old system could only store a few cases for a limited time so older cases were constantly archived on magnetic tape.

The agency discovered the source of the problem in April 2013 and hired the Child Support Lien Network to complete the review. While that project took two years, the audit of the 14,016 open cases should only take about two or three months.

“The Department believes its response regarding this issue has not resulted in delay or harm for the obligated parent,” she wrote. “A lien that has not been released does not affect the obligated parent’s credit report as liens are not reported, only balances.”

Of course, no parents were interviewed. This article is just how “the state officials” feel about the matter. Parents could be living in a car or on the street for all they care – as long as “officials” can justify how “the state” feels.

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Texas Secretly Pushing Child Support on County Offices

Wichita County Tax Collector/Assessor Tommy Smyth said more unfunded mandates pushed onto his office may be a recipe for disaster.

Smyth spoke at the Wichita County Commissioners meeting to provide information about a request to fill a position for a deputy collector in his office.

In the past 12 months, he said, while already wrangling changes with the one sticker-two step program for vehicle registration and inspection, tax offices were informed by the state that beginning in March, the office must deny services to people who owe back child support. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“, “Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“, “Bradley Law and Real Justice“]

Smyth said there was also talk that two more mandates might be added in the next six months.

“We had a conference in June in Lubbock and there was no mention of what was going to be dropped on us in November in San Marcos,” Smyth told the court.

“You can only push bureaucracy so far to a certain point, and then something has to be compromised,” he said, likening the situation to an employee at a restaurant who was running a register, taking orders, cooking and cleaning.

In that situation the business’ service, food and reputation could be compromised, he said.

“It’s the same thing in county government, it’s the same thing. We’re trying to provide optimum services to the citizens of Wichita County. I think we do a Cracker Jack job of it. We’ve got Cracker Jack staff, but we’re not in control,” Smyth said.

Several problems arise from the tax offices serving as a filter for child support enforcement, he said.

Smyth noted that if the state attorney general’s office had been successful in finding these people delinquent on child support, the people would have been notified already instead of pushing it onto the tax offices.

“More than likely when that somebody walks up to our window and one of our deputies says, ‘Sir/madam, we cannot do your transaction.’ They bought a $58,000 pickup, but can’t do tax and license on it, it’s going to get very contentious,” Smyth said.

Another problem could be the merging of another database and software download.

In March the office merged with the Department of Public Safety’s system.

Smyth said they have run into situations at times with the one sticker-two step system where the other entity did not do a download of their software and the system was not up to date.

He gave a possible example of someone who paid child support on a Friday, then comes in Monday to register vehicle, but the system was not up to date in showing the individual’s payment.

“When that individual comes in our office, we have to decline them. Well, the minute you decline somebody, you inherit a very contentious situation,” he said.

“The call volume that we associate with this child support, I can’t even get my arms around it. I mean, I have no idea,” Smyth said of the calls and complaints the tax office could receive about the new mandate.

from the Wichita Falls Times Record

Tennessee Struggles With Child Support Debt

justice and moneyMothers who make no effort to identify father of their children could have a cap on the number of years in which they can go back and seek child support.

“We’re asking the legislature to consider allowing a law that says you can’t go back any more than five years,” 9th Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson said.

Johnson said his office collected $8.173 million in child support during the 2014-15 fiscal year and led the state in establishing orders in cases.

An inability to pay is a problem many defendants run into, according to Johnson.

“What’s happening is these dads, usually dads, sometimes mothers, owe tens of thousands of dollars in child support going back 18 years at some point,” Johnson said. “They’ll never get it paid.”

To convey his point, Johnson’s office looked at the number of inmates in the Roane County Jail with child support issues as of Dec. 1.

Two were in custody on a child support hold only, and another 10 were in jail with criminal and child support holds.

The total child support arrearages for those 12 inmates was $343,210.54.

“Right now, you place a child support amount from birth until 18,” Johnson said. “In a lot of cases, most of these are not typically just people coming out of divorce with kids. They are people who have had kids out of wedlock, which is a common thing.”

Johnson’s office handles cases free of charge in Magistrate Charles Crass’ court for custodial parents who have either a divorce decree or court order requiring someone to pay child support.

“The court and the state can’t relieve you of paying the child support,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be there forever. Judge Crass just can’t say well that’s OK, don’t worry about that $20,000.”

A law that puts a cap on the number of years a person can go back to seek child support could force parents to take advantage of their rights sooner.

“You’ve got to immediately file something for paternity and get that going and get that person identified,” Johnson said. “You can’t wait until right before the child is about to turn 18 and go back and say, ‘hey, John Doe, you’re the father of my child, let’s have a DNA test and prove it, and now you’re owing 18 years of child support you didn’t know about’.”

The next session of the Tennessee General Assembly starts in January.

“That’s something the legislature is going to look at,” Johnson said.

If that happens, Johnson said it could also cause the legislature to look at some of the problems the court system is having with defendants who can’t pay their fines and court costs in criminal cases.

original article at Roane County News

While states struggle with their child support issues, the federal government takes support from any available source, including social security and tax offices. Men continue to be cut down by unconstitutional and cruel law like the Bradley Amendment, which prohibits any retroactive change in child support.

Oklahoma Could Owe Millions in Child Support Overcharges

justice and money

  • Some parents have been overcharged for back child support.
  • A judge ruled Monday that the state has to pay millions in repayment.
  • If his ruling is upheld, a search of paper records will decide who is owed refunds.

A judge’s decision against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in a class-action lawsuit could cost the state millions of dollars if upheld on appeal.

The Oklahoman reports that Oklahoma County District Judge Barbara Swinton ruled that for years, the state agency has charged fathers in paternity cases too much in interest for back child support judgments.

Four men filed the lawsuit in 2011. They claimed they were wrongfully charged 10 percent interest rather than a fluctuating rate determined by the prime rate set by banks.

Department of Human Services records dating to 2000 show that more than 26,000 men could be due refunds. If the decision is upheld, a search of paper records that date back to 1993 will be necessary to determine who is owed refunds.

Bob Robinson, an attorney for the four men, estimates the state will have to reimburse fathers $130 million or more.

Oklahoma Department of Human Services attorney Richard Freeman said in reference to Robinson’s estimate that “It could be in the millions for sure, potentially. I don’t think it will be that much.”

Freeman also said that the reimbursement funds could come from insurance.

The agency says the way it computes, assesses and collects interest on child support judgments is proper under Oklahoma law.

After the lawsuit was filed, the law was rewritten to make clear that the human services department can charge 10 percent interest on back child support in paternity cases. The new law went into effect on Nov. 1, 2012.

—–

Of course, using a little magical thinking, the state insists on making no error despite their mistake. Those that have paid child support and kept up won’t see any benefit. However, those that have paid a penalty for late support payments can expect to see a refund in a few years, at least if the attorney doesn’t grab all the loot for “fees and expenses”. This should also force Oklahoma to compute all back support amounts for all child support from 1993 to 2012. – MJR

 

Some States Are Cutting Poor Dads A Deal On Unpaid Child Support

child support shacklesMany states have opted for oppression when it comes down to child support debt. A few wiser minds are prevailing in a few places. When the state of Maryland wanted to reach dads who were behind on their child support payments, it started in the boarded-up blocks of West Baltimore, in neighborhoods marked by drugs, violence and unemployment.

In just four zip code areas, the state identified 4,642 people who owed more than $30 million in back child support. Most of that was “state-owed,” meaning that rather than going to the child through the custodial parent, it’s supposed to reimburse taxpayers for welfare paid to the child’s mother.

This is a source of great resentment for many men, who say they want their money to go to their children. But most who owe it can’t pay anyway, as they earn less than $10,000 a year.

slavery to children“So even if we use taxpayer dollars to chase ’em down, and we catch ’em, right, and we go into their pockets, there’s nothing in there,” says Joe Jones of Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families.

Are they deadbeat?

Joseph DiPrimio, head of Maryland’s child support enforcement office, doesn’t like that expression. “I think that’s vulgar. I don’t use it,” he says. DiPrimio prefers “dead broke.”

“We’re talking about individuals that are economically challenged, they’re underemployed, but they want to do the right thing,” he says.

Unpaid child support in the U.S. has climbed to $113 billion, and enforcement agencies have given up on collecting much of it. They say too many men simply don’t have the money.

What’s more, research shows that high child-support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

Breaking Through The Distrust

ecard father bradley amdLike a growing number of state government officials, Maryland’s DiPrimio wanted to make parents an offer. But he needed their trust, and that was a problem.

Research shows high child support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

And sting operations to round up parents who owed child support have happened all over the country, including Baltimore. In a typical ruse, agencies have sent fake letters telling parents they won tickets to a football bowl game, for instance — but when they showed up to collect, they were arrested instead.

father-sonTo break through years of distrust, Maryland sent letters to parents with the logo of the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit in West Baltimore that provides job training and other help to poor families.

They made this offer: If the parent takes the center’s month-long employment training course and lands a job, the state will forgive 10 percent of his or her child support debt. If they complete a Responsible Fatherhood program, the state will write off another 15 percent. One of the first persons to sign up was a mother, though the vast majority of noncustodial parents are men.

In a separate “debt compromise” program, Maryland will also write off 50 percent of a parent’s child support debt if they maintain monthly payments for a year.

fathersrightsResponse has been slow. In two years, slightly more than 100 parents have signed on. Many of them attend fatherhood meetings like one held on a recent Wednesday night. Two dozen men — 20-something to middle age, in sweats and in suits — sit in a large square.

Some complain their exes won’t let them see their child if they haven’t paid child support. Others don’t understand why it doesn’t count as support when they take their kids out to eat, or buy them clothes — or say they would do those sorts of things for their kids if their child support obligation wasn’t so heavy.

Mostly, like 30-year-old Lee Ford, they say it’s so hard to find work

“You telling me no matter what, I gotta pay. But I can’t get a job to work to save my soul,” he says.

Group leader Eddie White cuts no slack. “If you know you got a criminal record, sure it’s gonna be hard for you to get a job. But it don’t mean you can’t work,” White says.

A big part of this class is also educational. White asks the men what a person who is paying child support should do if he gets laid off or loses his job.

“There you go, that’s the word. Immediately,” White says. “Immediately ask the court for an adjustment.”

Other Approaches To Debt Relief

Maryland’s program is part of a larger effort to keep impoverished parents from racking up child support debt in the first place.

baby moneySome states are trying to speed up the cumbersome process of adjusting an order when a parent loses a job. Ohio has experimented with sending simple reminders — by phone, mail or text — to parents who need to send in monthly payments. Texas has reached out to newly incarcerated parents, to let them know they can apply to have their payments reduced while in prison — something not all states allow.

“We sent out a teaser postcard trying to combat the ostrich effect,” says Emily Schmidt, a research analyst with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, who helped with the Texas effort.

Schmidt says there was concern that someone going through the emotional transition of incarceration wouldn’t likely be thinking about child support, and may not even open a letter from the state. So they printed the postcard on blue paper to stand out, and, taking a cue from marketers, it said, “Four easy steps to lowering your child support.”

After 100 days, the response rate among parents was up 11 percent, “a very low-cost intervention for a fairly dramatic effect,” Schmidt says.

barack obamaThe Obama administration wants to “right size” child support orders from the start, and has proposed regulations to make sure they are set according to what parents actually earn. Officials say some jurisdictions base orders on a full-time minimum wage, even if a parent earns far less. They say this can backfire, leaving so little money after a parent’s wages are garnished that he or she quits and works underground instead.

The White House’s proposals also would provide more job training for parents with child support debt — something Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says is a good investment.

“More fathers will get a job, more fathers will have earnings, and more fathers will use those earnings to pay child support,” he says.

So far, that’s what’s happened in Baltimore. The numbers are small. But the amount of child support that’s been paid is more than double the amount of debt written off.

Maryland wants to expand its child support debt forgiveness program, hoping to help more parents to pay what they can.

How America’s Child Support System Failed To Keep Up With The Times

clinton-child-support-celebration
When the U.S. child support collection system was set up in 1975 under President Gerald Ford — a child of divorce whose father failed to pay court-ordered child support — the country, and the typical family, looked very different from today.

And as the nation’s social, economic and demographic landscape has shifted, the system has struggled to keep up. Cynthia Osborne, director of the Child and Family Research Partnership and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, explains how these changes have outpaced the decades-old system — and left the country with more than $113 billion in unpaid child support.

Walk us through what the child support collection system looked like in 1975. What issues was it designed to address? What did the typical family look like?

It was officially launched in 1975, which is when the government established Section IV-D of the Social Security Act. No-fault divorce had recently been passed, and there was a rapid increase in divorce.

In 1975, this system would try to ensure that after a divorce, we would try to replicate what the household looked like prior to the divorce with regards to the children’s well-being. So the father would continue to provide income to the child, and the mother normally would get the child following a divorce in terms of physical custody, and she would use the resources from the father.

The whole system was set up in a way to try to bring back what the nuclear family looked like prior to a divorce, and nearly everyone who entered into the child support system was a product of divorce. There were very few nonmarital births at that time.

During that time period, divorce was one of the single greatest predictors that a woman, especially a woman with children, would fall into poverty. The research indicated that fathers typically gained financially following a divorce, even though they were ordered to pay child support, and mothers typically lost financially, they had both the children and reduced income. And so the child support system was hoping to try to offset some of that.

The 1970s and ’80s saw profound social, economic and demographic changes. What sort of shifts were occurring, and how did they affect child support?

There was this huge increase in divorce, and a beginning rise in nonmarital childbearing that was nearly nonexistent in the early 1970s — then becoming, by the mid-1980s, up into the 20 percent of all children.

Those were big changes that were occurring in the family, and simultaneously there were gains and losses in the labor market. There were more and more women who were starting to enter into the labor market during both the 1970s and ’80s. And the question about what women’s role was, vis-a-vis caring for their child and working and so forth, was starting to be really front and center in the discussion of women’s place within the family and the economy.

Still, though, the majority of women, when they became mothers, were the primary caretakers and not the primary breadwinners. The single mothers also were not very likely to work. So married moms were staying at home to take care of the kid. Single moms were on welfare, and our welfare rolls were expanding quite rapidly.

The 1980s [also] saw a huge boom in the return to college education, and this is especially true for men. And those who got this education— with higher skills and higher-wage jobs — were starting to really pull away from men who had lower levels of education or moderate levels of education. And men at the very bottom, who had no high school education especially, were starting to lose in real terms of their value of earnings. And that’s really a trend that’s continued until today.

And when we think about who those men are partnered with, often they’re partnered with the same women who are more and more likely to be dependent on welfare rolls — during this time there was a huge increase in welfare rolls — and also mostly among less educated women.

So you now had a growing number of women who were either divorced or not married who were seeking public assistance, and a growing number of less educated men who had very few prospects in the labor market, and declining prospects at that.

It really can’t be overstated how important in the whole welfare reform debate [it] was that one of the fastest entrants into the labor market were women with children under the ages of 5. And it became harder and harder to justify that we should have a system that would support one group of women to stay at home with their children while this other group of women was choosing to enter into the labor market.

And all this set the stage for welfare reform?

Yes, with that kind of backdrop — with two earners becoming necessary, women making this conscious decision to enter into the labor market and the general dismay about the existing welfare reforms system — we started really to think seriously about how we should do this differently, and what should we expect of moms and so forth, and I think that’s why the work requirements became so steep in the welfare reform debate.

And with child support, by the mid-1990s when all of these reforms were being put into place, nonmarital childbearing had risen from being something that was not very pervasive to nearly one-third of all births, 25 to 28 percent. Now, it’s at 41 to 42 percent.

What were the hallmarks of the 1996 welfare reform?

Welfare reform really did punctuate this idea that fathers should be responsible for providing for their children, that the state will do it in limited circumstances, but that we want the fathers to be the ones who are responsible for this. And there was a very strong notion at that point that men who weren’t paying for their child support were not involved in their children’s lives, were just deadbeat and avoiding the system.

The Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made it so that the guidelines had to be more specific, and that the states had to enforce them more carefully. It changed what the performance measures were for states — basically, if you set an order, you have to collect on it and there could be penalties if you didn’t. And it really punctuated the idea that child support is a direct link with welfare, that there really isn’t a way for a mom who’s going to go on public assistance to avoid seeking child support.

In 1994 our rolls on welfare were some of the largest that they had been; they had really ballooned up to the point where upwards of 7 percent of kids were on welfare rolls. There was no end in sight because of the increase in nonmarital childbearing and who was now coming into the system was a different family type than what the system was initially set up to accommodate. And that, I think, remains one of the biggest challenges of our system.

And so the initial system was set up to replicate the nuclear family of dad as breadwinner, mom as homemaker, and now you have families in which mom and dad may have never lived together. They may have lived together when the child was born for a short period of time. They may or may not have shared resources. The father may have been contributing or not contributing.

And that gets us to the massive amount of unpaid child support — $113 billion and counting.

Right. Each state does it differently, but Texas will determine what a noncustodial parent’s income is. If he says zero, well, there isn’t zero child support, there will often be a presumption that he should be working full time, full year at at least minimum wage. So the judge will often set what’s called a minimum wage order, and it’s about $215 a month in Texas, which is about 20 percent of your net income of that. So here is a father who is now going to owe $215 a month plus about $50 a month in medical support. And he did not disclose that he had any income at the time that he established those awards.

It could be even worse, it could be — and this happens very often — that that man comes in, but his child is 2 years old. And now, either he’s been evading for two years, or he didn’t know he had this child, or they were together for almost all that time, but now they’ve separated. There could be lots of different reasons, but the child’s now 2 years old. The judge could order at that time that not only does he owe $200 each month moving forward, but he owes $200 a month for those two years …

Even if they were together but not married?

That’s right. And so this back child support is something that’s very real. A lot of the men start off in this hole that they just simply cannot dig themselves out of. For some of these guys, having a $5,000 arrears payment, it would be like a middle income person having a $50,000 debt that they’re just supposed to somehow work their way out of. It feels almost impossible.

What about the people who argue that this just doesn’t make sense?

I think it is actually not a simple answer. We do need to feel like men are being held accountable for their children, or noncustodial parents are supporting their children in some way. I do think that it’s reasonable for people to say somehow men have to demonstrate that they are going to provide for their children. Even if it is $200 a month and even if they don’t have a job, we are going to hold them accountable.

That just ignores, though, the fact that we can say that, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to pay it. We often know that if they’re not able to pay their child support formally, that they’re less likely to be able to contribute informally. They’re going to stay away from the child; they’re going to be less involved.

So although it makes sense on some level that we want to find a way to hold these dads accountable, in fact, what we’re doing is making it less likely that he’s going to be engaged in his child’s life by providing informally or being involved in other sorts of ways, and it’s going to cause difficulties in the co-parenting relationship between the mom and the father.

And for those reasons, there are proposals by the Obama administration — and other folks have been advocating this for quite a while — that say, let’s set what we call right-sized orders, that we actually take into account what he actually has the ability to pay when we establish these child support orders, and that we’re hoping that if he pays $25 a month now, that we can modify that order later when he gets more income and he’ll pay a little more and so forth.

This applies also to fathers who are incarcerated. We have a huge number of fathers who are incarcerated at some point in their child’s life. But it has not been a material reason to alter your child support award amount. So that’s another change proposed by the Obama administration, that if you are incarcerated, that we modify the child support order in some way to reflect that you cannot earn an income during that time.

In Texas, the average arrears payment that a father owes who’s been incarcerated coming out of prison is $8,000. When he comes out with high levels of arrears, he’s less likely to enter into the formal labor market and have his wages immediately garnished, so it just sends him back to the underground economy and the chances of recidivism and incarceration are really high.

Ultimately, then, what’s the purpose of child support system?

The states’ incentives really are to set amounts that can be collected on that make it look like they are reaching collection goals. But the performance measures at the federal level are based on the proportion that you collect based on the proportion that’s established.

So the states could benefit if they move to this more right-sized orders approach. But we have to be careful that that big dollar amount out there of what we’re collecting doesn’t become the driving force of how to maintain our child support enforcement system.

To be perfectly honest, I think if I could be queen for the day, in today’s families, I would change the presumption that there is an equal division of time and an equal division of responsibility for providing for that child. That’s not going to work for every family. Some of them have never been contributing, some have both been contributing but at disproportionate amounts.

But if we started with the 50-50 presumption, then the judge could work with the families to say, well, how do we get to some form of equality that works for you guys?

If we really started with this presumption that we’re going to jointly care for our children, even though the parents are not married to each other, and then let’s work out a system that seems fair in both the amount of time that we’re spending and the amount of resources that we’re spending, that it costs to raise this particular child, it’s a lot more work on the part of the state to figure out what that is, but it just feels like that would be more fair.

For our low-income guys who can’t afford anything, the moms are having to work, why don’t they provide the child care? We’re not ready to go that way with our families, but our families have changed so much, we need a system that starts to keep up with them some way.

from NPR

Child Support, Prison & Crushing Debt

child support shacklesOf the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, about half are parents, and at least 1 in 5 has a child-support obligation. For most, the debt will keep piling up throughout their imprisonment: By law or by practice, child-support agencies in much of the country consider incarceration a form of “voluntary impoverishment.” Parents like Harris, the logic goes, have only themselves to blame for not earning a living. But that may be about to change.

childsupportchart2016

What does this tell you about overdue child support?

Republicans opposed to new regulations

The Obama administration has authorized a new set of regulations that would reclassify incarceration as “involuntary,” giving parents the right to push the pause button on child-support payments. The regulations are set to be published early next year and implemented by states by 2017.

Congressional Republicans oppose the new policy. They argue that it would undercut the 1996 welfare reform act, which pressed states to locate missing fathers and bill them for child support so taxpayers wouldn’t bear the full burden of their children’s welfare. (What idiots, the debt can’t be paid anyway.)

“I am fundamentally opposed to policies that allow parents to abdicate their responsibilities, which, in turn, results in more families having to go on welfare,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a speech in June on the Senate floor. Obama’s new regulations, he said, “would undermine a key feature of welfare reform, which is that single mothers can avoid welfare if fathers comply with child-support orders.”

Frances Pardus-Abbadessa, head of child-support enforcement for New York City, said: “The complaint we often hear is, ‘Why should incarcerated fathers, of all people, be the ones to get a break from their obligations — and at a cost to the taxpayer?’ “

Administration officials and their supporters counter that billing fathers while they’re in prison does little but dig them deeper into debt.

“Billing poor fathers doesn’t help poor mothers and kids become less poor,” said Jacquelyn Boggess, a poverty expert with the Center for Family Policy and Practice.

“All it creates,” she said, “is a highly indebted individual.”

Debt piles up

For Earl Harris, the problem was keeping up. He had a job in prison, cleaning the kitchen, but it paid only $7.50 a month — well short of the $168 the state of Missouri was billing him.

“Didn’t they know I was in prison?” he asks. “Weren’t they the ones that put me in there?”

When he got out in 2001, the unpaid amount was listed on his credit report — and pursued by an agency with the power to garnish 65 percent of his wages, intercept his tax returns, freeze his bank account, suspend his driver’s license and, if he failed to pay, lock him up again. By then, his debt had surged to more than $10,000.

Harris entered barbering school but soon returned to drug dealing and was thrown back into prison for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, his child-support debt swelled to more than $25,000.

Incarceration currently deemed ‘voluntary’

Harris’s plight is not unusual. The Marshall Project interviewed nearly three dozen noncustodial parents in 10 states; they all left prison owing between $10,000 and $110,000 in child support. Mostly fathers who are disproportionately black and poor, these parents faced prosecution for not repaying the debt, even after their children were grown.

And what they were able to pay did not necessarily go to their children or the mother. The state often kept their money as repayment for welfare, child care or Medicaid benefits that had been provided to the family while the dad was locked up.

To address the issue, the Obama administration began drafting new rules about four years ago. As currently written, the rules would forbid state child-support agencies from classifying incarceration as “voluntary,” granting parents the legal right to a reduction in payments while they’re in prison, a right that does not exist in 14 states.

The rules would require agencies to inform incarcerated parents of this right and would encourage agencies to provide a reduction in payments automatically. And they would urge states to transfer all payments directly to custodial parents — mostly mothers — and their children.

The administration proposal would provide about $35 million over the next five years to modernize the child-support system and to provide job training, job placement, bus fare, and other services to fathers facing prosecution for nonpayment.

The rule “will make sure that arrears don’t accumulate endlessly while a parent is incarcerated,” said Vicki Turetsky, President Barack Obama’s commissioner of child-support enforcement. “Our goal is to collect, month by month, for kids. We can do that when parents are employed, not in debt.”

Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have introduced legislation to block the new rules, though neither lawmaker has pushed to advance the measure.

Ron Haskins, a child-support expert at the Brookings Institution, said he and other conservatives actually support parts of the new regulations. But they worry, he said, that the policy “could begin a long process of undermining the child-support concept, which they strongly believe in.”

The struggle after prison

Back in North St. Louis, Earl Harris, now 38, has put in his hours as an apprentice barber and is one written test away from getting his license. In the meantime, he is living in a halfway house and working at a factory across the river in Illinois, packaging Febreze canisters and Swiffer mops.

His hours are 4 p.m. to midnight, though he arrives an hour early to make sure he doesn’t lose his spot to another temp worker waiting outside the building in hopes of getting a shift. After work, he typically gets a cousin to drive him back to his dorm room, where he sleeps from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. before heading to his daily support group for fathers.

By 8 a.m. the dads are circled up, talking about having kids and debt. They have come because the program helps them find a job, develop strategies for handling their arrears and work on their parenting skills. They also get free legal help. Many of them were incarcerated, almost exclusively for selling drugs, and everyone is wearing a jacket and tie, the uniform of employment.

One father, Louis Moore, said his debt soared to almost $60,000 while he was inside. Allan Newcomer’s is more than $68,000. “Everybody in the penitentiaries was getting the letters,” Newcomer said.

Lisl Williams, a former judge who now works with the fathers, said even if they spend their money on food, clothes or toys for their children, it does not reduce their debt. In many cases, she said, the whole family — the mother, aunts, uncles, cousins — chips in to help pay it, and then the money they pay goes to the government as repayment for welfare they received long ago.

Because the fathers don’t have large incomes to garnish, bank accounts to tap or property to seize, she adds, they are more likely to face re-incarceration for not paying their arrears.

‘I know I’m the bad man’ (Oh, really?)

Another dad, Corey Mason, said he was incarcerated and already racking up child-support debt when he got a notice saying he might have another child by a different mother. He was instructed to go to the medical wing, get a DNA swab and send it to the agency. When they confirmed his paternity, he started getting a new set of child-support bills.

Mason sent several handwritten letters to the agency explaining that he was in prison. He said he never got a response. (So who is really bad? You know!)

Now that he’s out, Mason has a job at the Marriott hotel downtown. He works the graveyard shift, cleaning, shutting down the bar, providing towels to customers who ask for extra. Because the child-support agency garnishes well over half his weekly paycheck, he turned down a recent promotion.

“I want to grow in the company. But I don’t want to work that much harder if they’re just going to take all of it to pay for history,” Mason said.

“I know I’m the bad man. But I’m working harder now than I ever have, and it’s like this is designed to keep me behind, backed up against the wall, in debt for the rest of my life.” (Hear the defeat and fear? That’s what they want!)

Obama: ‘Too many fathers M.I.A, AWOL’

Obama has frequently scolded the same absentee fathers who now stand to benefit from his regulations. “Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” he told a Chicago audience in 2008 as a candidate for president.

Some fathers interviewed for this story had multiple children — one man said he had 12 — by different mothers. Many seemed less than eager to find employment. A few served time for domestic violence.

Some mothers say these men do not deserve to be freed of their debt.

“There’s a real tension here, as a matter of public policy,” said Joan Entmacher, an expert on family poverty at the National Women’s Law Center. “There are absolutely fathers who evade their responsibilities, saying, ‘Oh, I can’t pay that,’ and not even trying. We don’t want to simply reward that attitude.”

Even if a father is a deadbeat, however, the evidence is clear: Noncustodial fathers are far more likely to pay child support, and otherwise reengage with their families, if payments are manageable.

In a 2012 study by the Center for Policy Research, a private nonprofit research organization, fathers paid a much higher percentage of their monthly obligations when offered relief from unpayable state-owed debt. In studies in Maryland, Illinois and California, fewer than 15 percent remained noncompliant once the old debts were reduced and they were given a schedule of regular payments. And the fathers most likely to abide by “debt compromise” agreements were those who had been incarcerated.

Boggess, the child-support analyst, said that trying to collect the accumulated debt is “like squeezing an empty bottle and hoping something comes out.

“These fathers are poor, period. Their arrears are uncollectible, period,” she said. “They’ve never even met anyone who had $30,000.”

States taking action

Many states have already taken action. In 36 states and the District, incarceration is no longer officially considered “voluntary” impoverishment, and an imprisoned father is legally entitled to have his monthly child-support bill modified to as little as $50 a month or, in rare cases, stopped altogether.

But it is still up to the father to prove he is incarcerated, and then to file for the reduction. This involves navigating a maze of paperwork from prison, usually with no lawyer, irregular access to phones and, in many cases, an eighth- or ninth-grade education.

The most common pitfall, said Bo Twiggs, the director of UpNext, a program in New York City that helps recently incarcerated fathers, is that the incarcerated dad has no idea his child support is piling up because he isn’t getting the notices. The debt keeps compounding – and federal law prohibits the reduction of child-support bills retroactively.

“It’s hard for these fathers to understand that they can’t wait, they can’t adjust to life in prison before dealing with child support, that they need to take action immediately because the debt will be permanent,” Twiggs said. “That’s really counterintuitive.”

When these fathers get out of prison, they often don’t notice the debt until the state begins pursuing it, “which forces them to go underground instead of rejoining the formal economy,” said Turetsky, Obama’s commissioner of child-support enforcement.

Indeed, research shows that the two most important factors in a former prisoner’s successful reentry into the community are employment and positive relationships with family. Both of these are hindered by the aggressive pursuit of child-support arrears: Garnishing 65 percent of a father’s paycheck, so he is tempted to earn cash off the books; suspending his driver’s license so he can’t get to work; sending him bills that are so far beyond his capacity to pay that he keeps his distance from his family.

“I see it all the time,” Twiggs said: “Not reengaging with the family. Noncompliance with parole and child support. Under-the-table efforts at income. Self-defeat, high anxiety, general institutional distrust. All of that is triggered by this absolutely overwhelming, impossible feeling of debt.”

portions from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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