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Posts tagged ‘poverty’

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

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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.

Data Shows NJ Child Support Administrators Lied To Lawmakers About Effectiveness Of Collections

child support shacklesA law suit challenging New Jersey’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for child support arrears says that the Division of Family Development misled lawmakers to convince them that the program is a success.

The Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development (DFD) administers the child support computer system. In reports to the Legislature from 2006-08, the DFD said an average of $33 million in additional child support was collected annually under a program which provides for automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses. They said, on average, they collected of $1,737 per suspension.

However, changes to the child support computer system which allowed for more accurate tracking, show that from 2010 through 2014 the state averaged each year about 20,000 suspensions and collected only $5.3 million or an average of $259 per license suspension, according to reports obtained through discovery.

Rather than reconciling the 600% inflation of the numbers, annual reports on the progress of the license suspension program mysteriously stopped. From 2009 through 2013 no reports exist and in 2014 the drastically lower numbers were noted as due to a “change in data collection.”

The New Jersey Child Support Program Improvement Act, signed into law in 1998, requires annual reports to the Legislature about the program’s operation. [“Child Support: Is Losing Your License Legal?“, “Oppressive Government: Licenses & Child Support“]

In Kavadas v. Martinez, a law suit challenging the state’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses without conducting a hearing for nonpayment of child support, David Perry Davis, a New Jersey lawyer who represents the plaintiffs says the suspension of a driver’s license in such cases is “self-defeating” because it may prevent a parent from going to work, applying for jobs or seeing his or her children. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“, “Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“]

Davis also stresses the point that there is no way to determine what collections are attributable to license suspensions when they occur automatically upon the issuance of an arrest warrant. “Obviously, an arrested obligor’s interest is in getting out of jail – the idea that they are more motivated to do this because their license has been suspended is absurd,” Davis told the Bergen Dispatch.

In essence, the Division of Family Development claims that 100% of the money collected as a result of an arrest warrant is due solely to the automatic suspension of a driver’s license and arrests and incarceration have no impact on the money collected by the state.

“The suit does not seek to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses to force parties to pay child support, instead it attempts to limit the practice to cases where a hearing is conducted and a judge determines that it would be appropriate,” Davis said. The suit claims that the state’s practice of automatic suspensions is “unconstitutional and is contrary to the intent of the Legislature.”

“The 2014 Report still dramatically misrepresents the process, failing to inform the legislature that 99.429% of suspensions are done without a contemporaneous hearing,” Davis added.

Named as defendants in the suit are Raymond Martinez, chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission; the State of New Jersey; the Motor Vehicle Commission; acting Attorney General John Hoffman; and Natasha Johnson, director of the Office of Child Support Services in the state Department of Human Services.

The program stems from a 1996 federal law requiring states to toughen their child support procedures in order to qualify for certain types of federal aid. The federal Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) called for states to develop legislation to increase ways in which compliance with child support orders could be increased.

PRWORA also requires New Jersey residents receiving benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to sign over any right to child support to their respective County. In those cases, monies collected through child support enforcement are used to reimburse the counties for TANF benefits and do not go directly to the families.

The 2014 report states, “Clearly the implementation of this program has positively impacted families that rely upon receiving support and, as an indirect benefit, has resulted in an additional revenue stream for the Motor Vehicle Commission.”

In order for a suspended license to be restored the Motor Vehicle Commission charges a $100 restoration fee.

In state fiscal year 2014 a total of 20,498 drivers’ licenses were suspended under the program, resulting in support collections of $4,333,543 or just $211 per suspension – plus $2,049,800 in additional fees to the MVC.

According to the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, on average, there are about 35,000 active child support warrants at any given time.

original article at Bergen Dispatch

Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children

InmateNearly four decades of mass incarceration and over-criminalization have made the United States the world leader in incarceration and arrests. The number of Americans in federal and state prisons and jails has quintupled over the past four decades. As a result, nearly 2.3 million Americans are behind bars today. The U.S. incarceration rate is at more than six times the average across developed nations. “Communities of color” and “men of color” are hit hardest, with black men six times more likely and Latino men two-and-a-half times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

Between 70 million and 100 million Americans, or as many as one in three American adults have a criminal record. Many have been convicted of only minor offenses, such as misdemeanors and many have arrests that never led to a conviction. Regardless of whether an individual has been incarcerated, having a criminal record often carries a lifetime of consequences, lasting long after that person has paid his or her debt to society.  A minor criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty, while presenting obstacles to employment, housing, education, training, public assistance, financial empowerment, and other lifestyle choices.

dad-with-kidsWhile the effects of parental incarceration on children and families are well-documented, less appreciated are the family consequences that stem from the barriers associated with having a criminal record. A child’s life chances are strongly tied to his or her circumstances during childhood. Thus, these barriers may not only affect family stability and economic security in the short term but also may damage a child’s long-term well-being and outcomes.

Nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record. Parental criminal records create significant challenges among low-income parents and their families.

Income
Parents with criminal records have lower earning potential, as they often face major obstacles to securing employment and receiving public assistance.

Savings and assets
Mounting criminal justice debts and unaffordable child support arrears severely limit families’ ability to save for the future and can trap them in a cycle of debt.

Education
Parents with criminal records face barriers to education and training opportunities that would increase their chances of finding well-paying jobs and better equip them to support their families.

Housing
Barriers to public as well as private housing for parents with criminal records can lead to housing instability and make family reunification difficult if not impossible.

Family strength and stability.
Financial and emotional stressors associated with parental criminal records often pose challenges in maintaining healthy relationships and family stability.

Child Support: Income That Doesn’t Exist’

clinton-child-support-celebration

Human rights in the USA

“When people have orders that they can’t comply with, it doesn’t motivate them to work and pay. It does the opposite,” says Turetsky of the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

She says too many men quit jobs, turn down promotions or go underground when courts set child support orders too high. One problem, she says, is that when there’s no evidence of income, many jurisdictions “impute” it, often basing payments on a full-time minimum wage job.

“I’m going to call it magical thinking,” Vicki Turetsky says. “You could call it the income we think you should have. But the bottom line is that it is income that does not exist.”

The child support system was set up four decades ago, and Turetsky says it seems stuck there — as if a man with no college can still walk into a factory tomorrow and pull down middle-class wages. In fact, a large majority of child support debt is owed by men who make less than $10,000 a year.

“We’re asking that [women and children] become dependent on men who are just as poor as they are,” says Jacquelyn Boggess of the Center for Family Policy and Practice.

When parents face incarceration for nonpayment, it can burden entire families. Boggess has seen men’s mothers, even their ex-girlfriends or wives, step in to pay to keep a father out of jail. And child support debt never goes away, even if you declare bankruptcy or when the children grow up.

“We found that there are 20- and 30-year-old children who are paying their father’s child support debt, so their father can keep whatever small income they may have,” she says.

child-support-poverty-burden

Balancing Responsibility And Reality

Among the Obama administration’s proposed changes to child support rules is a provision barring states from letting child support pile up in prison. There is wide support for that, even among conservatives.

“Everyone agrees, yes, we should be tough,” says Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “But if a father goes to jail for five years, should he owe $15,000 in child support when he comes out? You know that guy’s never going to have $15,000 in his whole life.”

More controversially, the administration wants to make sure child support orders are based on a parent’s actual income.

“We can’t be naive when we’re dealing with parents who have walked away from providing for their children,” says Robert Doar, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Doar, who used to head child support enforcement in New York state, says there will always be some parents who go to great lengths to hide income. He does support suspending debt during incarceration and more job training programs — but he worries that the proposed changes would make it too easy to dismiss cases as “uncollectible.”

“We’re talking about poor, single parents, often moms,” he says. “And the child support collections that they get, when they get it, represents 45 percent of their income.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have filed bills to block the proposed regulations. They worry they’ll undermine the principle of personal responsibility, a hallmark of child support enforcement measures in the 1990s. They also say any regulatory changes should be made through Congress, not the administration.

Child Support Laws Crippling Poor Fathers

by Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D

The more one learns about our system of criminal justice, the more one must wonder about some of its senseless policies.  That the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world is pretty much common knowledge to most.  But in case you have been asleep at the wheel, here are some mind-numbing numbers. With about five percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  About 2.2 million people are locked behind bars on a given day.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,561,500 inmates in state and federal prisons at year-end 2014 (serving terms of one year or more) and another 744,660 in local jails at midyear 2014.  About 6.9 million Americans (one in 35 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole or probation) at yearend 2013.  The number of adult Americans with felony convictions is estimated to be about 24 million (8.6%).  About 25 percent of black American adults have a felony conviction.

That’s the big picture.  However, throughout our criminal justice system there are laws, regulations, and issues that are antithetical to the notion of a free and democratic society.  The coercive and often deadly policing of neighborhoods of color, discriminatory “stop and frisk” laws, criminalization of the mentally ill, bail policies that unfairly impact poor suspects, and what many consider to be the inhumane over dependence on and arbitrary use of solitary confinement.  Family members and friends are often forced to travel inordinate distances to visit children, friends, and other people they care for.  They are charged exorbitant fees to speak with them by telephone and are treated without dignity during visitation.  Much of this has occurred because various elected officials compete to see who can be toughest on people who defy the law.  Many books and hundreds of journal articles have been written about our unjust system of crime control.  My dissertation focused on the impact of incarceration on the earnings and employment of indigent fathers.

InmateThe Washington Post ran an article on one particularly perplexing policy impacting poor inmates which disproportionately affects black and Latino fathers.  Child support obligations continue during periods of incarceration which often amass significant amounts of debt while these fathers are behind bars.  Once released, indebted fathers are under pressure to pay down their arrears.  Failure to do so results in more late fees and penalties and could ultimately put them back in prison.  In many jurisdictions this occurs because incarceration is considered “voluntary impoverishment”.  The term generally refers to those who quit their jobs or otherwise forfeit income in order to avoid paying an ex-spouse alimony or child support.  A classic example might be Marvin Gaye’s 1978 release of “Here My Dear,” thought to be a lackluster recording whose proceeds were going to his ex-wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.

The idea that poor fathers would deliberately get themselves locked up to avoid paying child support is ludicrous on its face and a ridiculous justification for current policy.  Columbia University social work professor Ronald B. Mincy and Urban Institute scholar Elaine Sorensen first wrote about child support policies that were burying poor incarcerated fathers back in 1998 differentiating “deadbeat” dads from “turnips”.  Deadbeat dads were those who could afford to pay but did not.  Turnips were fathers who were unable to pay—the thinking being the old adage that you can’t get blood from a turnip.  Although there is a judge in Alabama who thinks giving blood is a reasonable substitute.

The Obama Administration believes current child support policy that piles debts on poor incarcerated fathers is helping no one.  It does nothing for the mother or her child’s circumstance.  Housing the father as an inmate is significantly more costly than what the state could recoup from fathers for welfare payments to their children.  Fathers are often removed permanently from the lives of their children which one could argue might be good or bad.  The Office of Child Support Enforcement has drafted new rules that will go into effect in 2017 that changes the definition of incarceration to “involuntary” impoverishment and would allow indigent incarcerated fathers to push the pause button or negotiate a payment reduction while incarcerated.

Not surprising Republican lawmakers oppose what appears to be a commonsense rule change.   Utah Senator Orin Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have introduced legislation to block the new rules.  There are many things wrong with our current system of criminal justice and reform is moving at a glacial pace.  In the meantime, much too much human capital is being obliterated by the many indelible scars being inflicted on far too many people—particularly African American males.

Child Support Laws Crippling Poor Fathers was originally published @ Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy » Charles Lewis.

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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