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Maryland, Prison & Unrealistic Child Support

As lawmakers meet in Annapolis this month to examine possible reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, we hope they will take a hard look at a related issue as well: The plight of inmates who fall behind on their court-ordered child-support payments, which continue to accumulate while they’re behind bars and which leave them with crushing debts they cannot possibly pay off when they are eventually released. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“}

That’s because inmates who are ordered by the courts to make child support payments that seem reasonable when they’re working lose those incomes — but not their obligation to pay — while they are incarcerated. The amounts in arrears can climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, and because these convicts emerge from prison saddled with a criminal record, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for them to find a job that allows them to pay off what they owe. All too easily, their involvement with the state’s child-support enforcement authorities can leave them with a lifetime of indebtedness.

The consequences for them and their children can be devastating. Sixty-five percent of the inmates in Maryland’s prisons are parents, and most of them want to participate in some way in their children’s upbringing. When they can’t, it’s likely to not only alienate them from their partners and children but also to compound the problems they face finding a job, getting an education and avoiding returning to a life of crime.

Some inmates come out of prison so overwhelmed by accumulated debt and shamed by their inability to pay that they are actually discouraged from contacting their families. Others feel the only way to meet their obligations is by selling the drugs that got them incarcerated in the first place. Both are inimical to policies aimed at enlisting the support of families in the re-entry process.

The federal government and some states, including Maryland, have explored pilot re-entry programs that match up newly released inmates with service providers, such as the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, that offer temporary housing as well as job training and employment counseling. But such programs are small compared to the need. States must begin focusing on preparing incarcerated parents for release earlier and helping them navigate child-support issues so they don’t emerge from prison thousands of dollars in arrears with little prospect of ever paying such sums off.

In Maryland, custodial parents are entitled to collect child support even when the non-custodial parent is incarcerated. If an inmate can’t pay, and if the family is eligible for public assistance, the state pays an equivalent amount to the custodial parent, then seeks to recover the funds upon the incarcerated parent’s release.

Under a law passed in 2012, state authorities can temporarily reduce or suspend inmates’ financial obligations while they’re in prison. But they can’t alter the terms of a child support order issued by the courts to reflect an inmate’s reduced earning capacity while locked up, nor can they forgive accumulated debt that is owed directly to a custodial parent rather than to the state. [“Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“; “Bradley Law and Real Justice“; “The Bradley Amendment Child Support Mess“; “New Legal Research Available on Bradley Amendment“]

Nevertheless, Maryland could significantly ease inmates’ re-entry into society if its laws allowed child support officials to modify child support orders to reflect inmates’ actual earning power on release. The state already has a debt abatement program that allows inmates have their cumulative debt reduced by half if they make their support payments on time for 12 straight months; if they continue doing so for 12 more months the state can forgive entire amount remaining in arrears.

That represents progress, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that most recently incarcerated parents still won’t earn enough to make regular payments at the same level that was set based on their earning power before they went to prison. So they fall behind on their payments again and the vicious cycle of debt accumulation resumes.

Lawmakers could address this problem by authorizing The Department of Human Resources to modify court-ordered child support payments to make them more accurately reflect the current earning power of recently released inmates. That simple change would allow many more inmates to pay off what they owe the state as reimbursement for public assistance to their families, but leave undisturbed payments owed directly to a non-custodial parent. Moreover, it would cost the state relatively little to forgive debts that, in any case, stood very little chance of ever being collected.

Critics may charge that such a plan amounts to a free ride for deadbeat dads and moms. It isn’t. Rather, it’s simply a recognition that most people in Maryland’s prisons are poor and that saddling them with mountains of debt for unpaid child support is counterproductive. Nationwide, four out of 10 single parents live below the poverty line. Nobody’s is going to get rich because of a change in the law that acknowledges that reality. It’s in everyone’s interest to bring parents recently released from prison out of the shadows so they can begin to fulfill their obligations to their families and their communities.

from the Baltimore Sun

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.

Police: Man Sells Drugs To Pay Child Support

by Jay Ditzer – WLKY

baby moneyLOUISVILLE, Ky. — Police said a drunken driving suspect told them he was selling prescription painkillers to pay his child support.

Police said the officer searched Ford’s car and found a prescription pill bottle with several different drugs inside, including hydrocodone and Xanax.

Ford told the officer he was selling the pills to pay his child support, according to arrest records.

Police said they could not perform a blood test on Ford because he was too dehydrated.

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