A system full of flawed logic that winds up hurting children more than it helps them.
by Wendy Paris
Walter Scott wasn’t just a black man in America shot by a police officer; he also was a divorced father. While debate rages about excessive use of police force, his death points to another troubling practice—the incarceration of poor parents for failing to pay child-support.
For the most part, these are not “deadbeat dads”; they’re dead broke dads. Seventy percent of unpaid child support debt is owed by parents with no or low reported earnings, according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement. Their ex-wives often are poor, too. For these families, our punitive child support policies function like a de facto debtor’s prison for fathers. This, at a time when divorce, more broadly, has dramatically improved for many. While family scholars and journalists voice concern about a growing “marriage divide”—the way that marriage has become almost a luxury good attained by the “haves” and eschewed or effectively denied to the poor—a similar sorting is happening with divorce and co-parenting.
On the one hand, celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow seek conscious uncouplings. Upper- and middle-class couples seeking divorce in the US benefit from ever-increasing psychological, financial, and parenting resources. The law itself has improved divorce for many. New legal approaches such as mediation and collaborative counsel can make filing itself a mutually uplifting experience. These forms of “alternative dispute resolution” help adults make good decisions for everyone in the family, and steer clear of the divisive, anger-escalating spectacle of family court. Divorce can be seen as another awkward life passage, one that generates laughs, as on Bravo network’s new show The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.
But if a family finds itself in court, the system seems stacked against the poor. “Many states have two systems, one for married parents and one for poor people/welfare cases that are funneled through ‘paternity dockets’ where they barely get to say a word,” says Daniel Hatcher, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and a prolific researcher of and advocate for child support reform. “It’s a tribunal that’s just about child-support and paternity. It’s crowded. Judges are jaded. They face huge case loads.” As the trend toward unmarried parenting continues, especially among the poor, these paternity dockets look to grow even more crowded, meting out rushed decisions to more families.
While in court, a non-custodial parent, usually the father, may have a chance to explain to a busy judge his financial situation—perhaps he’s unemployed and worried about falling behind on rent. In many states, the judge can decide that this father could be earning minimum wage, impute that income to him, and set a custody amount he must pay the mother of his child as a percentage of his potential (that is to say, fictitious) earnings.
Maybe this obligation pushes him to scramble for a job. Perhaps it takes a few months. All the while, the child support debt has been accumulating. Now he has the monthly obligation plus back payment. (This is where the Bradley Amendment kicks in.) Some states terminate parental rights or throw a parent in jail or prison for back child support, or “non-compliance” with court orders. In South Carolina, the court can order the noncompliant father to appear to explain his delinquency, charge him $1,500 in the process, and jail him for up to a year. South Carolina is hardly an outlier. In Texas, a parent can be incarcerated even after he’s paid back his child support debt. (Texas is infamous for overcrowded courts, too. In one court in Harris County, Texas, a court master decided 500 paternity and child support cases in one day.)
Now the father is in jail; for some, like Scott, incarceration means the end of that great (or not so great) job. While in jail or prison, child support debt continues to mount in many states, some of which consider incarceration “voluntary unemployment.” In some states, you can apply for a child support modification while behind bars, but many parents do not know about this option, may find the process confusing, and may not realize their child support debt continues. Studies from a few states show that on average, a parent with a child support case enters jail or prison about $10,000 behind; he leaves owning more like $30,000. This debt is unlikely ever to be paid. The national child-support debt is more than $115 billion.
In South Carolina, if the non-custodial parent accumulates $500 in back child support while unemployed, the state can suspend or revoke his driver’s license as punishment. Say our unemployed father is a truck driver. Without his license, he’s lost his ability to work, and probably his sense of autonomy as an adult, and his willingness to cooperate with a system that’s working against him. As Scott’s brother Rodney told the New York Times, “Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support. He got to the point where he felt like it defeated the purpose.”
Incarceration also prevents a parent from spending time with his children. Research from a variety of areas shows that when the non-custodial parent spends time with his children, he’s more likely to pay child support. Forty years of research on child development shows that children benefit from having a good relationship with both parents, or parent-type figures. Incarceration yanks a parent right out of a child’s life.
If a custodial parent—usually the mother—seeks Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, the program that replaced welfare) or food stamps, both parents are treated like bad children. The mother is required to name the father, establish paternity, and sue the father in court for support, even if they have an in-kind arrangement that’s working. The pursuit of child support can destroy relationships. The money, if he has it, often goes back to the state for supporting the brood, not to his children. Meanwhile, the dads who can’t pay may find themselves in jail or prison, unable to help mom in other ways, such as picking up the kids from school or throwing a ball around on weekends.
The logic flaw baffles the mind, and hurts the heart, especially since about half of the nation’s back child support is owed to the government. In many states, child support collected in the name of the custodial parent receiving government aid does not go to that parent. It goes to the government instead, to pay for the cost of the food stamps of TANF. “The idea is that if we’re supporting this mom, we should be able to go after the dad to recoup this cost,” says Hatcher. “The guidelines don’t really work for these welfare cases at all. Most policy is driven by discussion about cases where both parents are working, middle class families on up; you plug in both parents’ income and then transfer to the custodial parent. That doesn’t make any sense when the money goes to the government.”
How have we arrived at these anti-family policies?
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the notion of the “deadbeat dad” loomed large in the public conscious, in part because of one spectacularly flawed and widely-cited study—since retracted by its own author—that purported to show divorced mothers subsisting at a third of their former standard of living, while the fathers lived better than ever. For many custodial parents, child support is the road out of poverty. Much child support went uncollected, and enforcement policies were changed to improve the situation. Some policies worked; the Office of Child Support Enforcement today still publishes reports showing continued gains in money collected. Threat of jail was considered a good motivator for delinquent dads, and it may be in some cases.
When it comes to the poor, however, these policies can create more harm than good. Maybe some fathers refuse to pay out of spite, while some mothers actively want their children’s father behind bars, if he’s violent, for example. But as research from a variety of areas shows, most of these poor families are fragile relationships, perhaps begun while very young, both people harboring hope for a future of stability and cooperation, even reconciliation or romance.
Old ideology probably contributes to our current policies as well—a view of faltering families that’s about as enlightened as something out of The Scarlet Letter. In England, Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 authorized towns to sue fathers of unwed mothers to reimburse them for assistance provided to their children. Early “bastardy acts” allowed colonies to incarcerate pregnant unwed mothers to protect the state from the financial burden of the child. Today’s laws are not as different as you’d expect. Lurking underneath lies an entrenched view that fathers are the lazy enemies of their own families, and poor mothers, in some way brought this on themselves. (You see this kind of view in the comments section of a recent piece in Concurring Opinions by law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone on the child support link in the Walter Scott affair.)
Some of the resources benefitting middle and upper-class divorcing couples help the poor, too. Technology, for example, allows those across the economic spectrum to read about their state’s laws online and access forms without shelling out for a lawyer. Courthouses around the country now have staffed self-help centers to guide pro se litigants (a.k.a. the do-it-yourself divorcees) through the paperwork. Increasingly, lawyers offer “unbundled” services, a consultation on an hourly basis. Most states have parenting classes and workshops for divorcing parents. Surveys show, and casual conversation confirms, wide satisfaction with these workshops.
But unmarried parents as a group get fewer resources, and if one parent sues the other in court, the kind of Orwellian child support laws that dogged Walter Scott kick in across the states. The overarching principle is the best interest of the child (a legal myth), but this aim gets subverted in policies that hurt the whole family.
There are solutions, the most promising of which take a problem-solving, rather than punitive approach. In Virginia, child support enforcement workers have begun reaching out to employers to find work for non-compliers, rather than more jail time. The state also has retooled its child support guidelines and begun launching programs aimed at helping poor fathers improve job-hunting and parenting skills. Some states have experimented with assessing child support only if a non-custodial parent has a minimum reserve of income. States, including California and Ohio, have passed statutes requiring the exercise of discretion rather than automatically referring certain child welfare cases to child support enforcement services.
In Maryland, Hatcher has worked on legislation to allow the state to automatically disable child support arrears during incarceration. This reform passed, but is not widely enforced. Hatcher notes that one stumbling block to reform is poor communication between child support enforcement and the criminal justice system.
This problem of poor communication—long the dominion of marriage counselors—is one I’ve seen repeatedly in my own research on divorce. I’d assumed that bad divorces result from a dearth of good ideas, but found instead that there are creative, humane solutions coming from a variety of states and various disciplines— and abysmal communication of them. In divorce, as in marriage, good communication may be the best way to suture a gap.