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Posts tagged ‘Walter Scott’

How the US Legal System Screws Poor Parents

father-child-in-prisonA 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.

kangaroo courtBut 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.

great-child-support-incomeMaybe 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.

empty-pockets-robbed-court-orderIn 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.

ebt-card-welfareIf 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?

captiveIn 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.

scarlet-letter-adulteryOld 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.

Scott-police-fatal-shootingBut 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.

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The Answer to US Child Support: Give Them An Ankle Bracelet

from the Desoto Times Tribune by Robert Lee Long

captiveA father thrown in jail for child support is unable to work to pay that debt and often loses his job. It’s a vicious cycle that is repeated time and time again. A recent New York Times article highlighted the issue of fathers who fall behind on child support, only to be incarcerated and unable to work, falling further and further behind in catching up.

For DeSoto County Jail Administrator Chad Wicker, the problem hits close to home. As a child of divorced parents, Wicker witnessed the problem firsthand. When his father fell behind in making child support payments, his mother could not collect on back child support because he lived in Texas. (Who knows how long ago this was? The Bradley Amendment is never discussed in these articles.)

mass handcuffs
States do not have reciprocal agreements to detain or arrest so-called “deadbeat dads” for overdue child support, according to Wicker.

“The problem with the dads who owe back child support is they keep coming back time and time again,” Wicker said. “We have some guys in custody who owe $70,000 or $80,000 and they are never in a position to pay it off.”

welfare queenEx-spouses of so-called “dead-beat dads” are also at a disadvantage. “Many times, the state does not get involved unless the mother is on government assistance,” Wicker said. “She can hire a private attorney or a private investigator to help her, but 99 percent of the time when a father who owes back child support gets arrested it’s because the state has a compelling interest in its litigation.”

Wicker said at the DeSoto County jail, men who have been arrested and jailed for owing back child support comprise 5 percent of the total jail inmate population but make up 40 percent of the jail’s non-violent offenders who are incarcerated.

“We usually keep between 10 to 20 in custody at any given time and for instance, today (Friday) we had a jail inmate population of 306,” Wicker said, adding 62 inmates were released Thursday following court-imposed adjudications of their sentences. According to Wicker, it costs $49.37 cents a day to house and feed an inmate.

Men who owe back child support quickly fill up beds in the jail once they again fall behind, according to Wicker. “Typically what happens is that you can go to jail if you are $2,000 behind,” Wicker said. “When you pay $400 a month, it doesn’t take long to get further behind if you get arrested and put in jail.”

Though jail is considered an effective incentive for parents who are able to pay, critics say punitive policies do not work for those who are poor, as the New York Times article points out.

Scott-police-fatal-shootingA case in point was the South Carolina man, Walter L. Scott, an African-American man who was pulled over for a broken tail light by a white Charleston, S.C. police officer. It was discovered by the police officer that Scott owed more than $18,000 in back child support and was likely headed back to jail. Scott bolted and ran and was shot in the back several times as he fled by the police officer, an event which touched off riots and protests in several American cities.

According to Sarah Geraghty, who was quoted in the New York Times article on the subject, poor people are often jailed over and over again in greater numbers for back child support in disproportionate numbers than those who have an ability to pay. “Parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for child support debt simply because they are poor,” Geraghty was quoted in the New York Times article as saying.

According to the New York Times, a 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of people in arrears were “owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income.”

tombstoneIn Scott’s case, he spent two weeks in jail and lost his $35,000-a-year job at a filmmaking company, in addition to sending him into an emotional and psychological spiral. Scott is now dead and obviously unable to pay not only any debt to his second wife and their children but any supposed debt to society.

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco said he would like to see these incarcerated fathers out working than taking up badly needed jail beds in his facility. “If they have a job, I would like to see them on an ankle bracelet and keep them on the job,” Rasco said. “It would help them and their families and help us keep our numbers down. If they lose their job, they’ll never catch up.”

———-

It’s bad enough to be labeled a ‘deadbeat’ or actually be dead, but the US has become so legally radicalized that ‘authorities’ believe that ankle bracelets are an answer, as if jail has ever been an answer. Coercion and fear are obviously what this is about, not about any pretense at a solution. It all about corporation exploitation by the state.  Imagine – the US considers itself superior in the battle for ‘human rights.’ Fathers are little more than a paycheck, and that’s the way the state likes it. Surely, the founding fathers of this nation would turn over in their graves, that is, if they were able. – MJR

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The Character Assassination Of Black Men

reposted from ThinkProgress by Moody Jim Rathbone

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony ButtsOn Wednesday, the Washington Post obtained a Baltimore Police Department document, which states that a prisoner in the vehicle transporting Freddie Gray heard Gray “banging against the walls” and “intentionally trying to injure himself.” The Post was given permission to publish the information, provided that the name of the witness remained anonymous, yet the newly-released details counter previous reports about the events leading up to Gray’s death. What is consistent, however, is police departments’ selective release of information that paints people injured or killed by police in a bad light — and mainstream media’s decision to buy into it.

Since Gray’s death, BPD’s missteps in arresting him have been well-documented. In widely-publicized videos of the arrest, Gray yells in pain as three officers drag him to their van. They refused to give Gray, an asthmatic, an inhaler. They didn’t put his seatbelt on. And sometime between his arrest and hospital admission, Gray’s voice box was crushed and his spinal cord severed.

But of all the documents compiled during the course of BPD’s investigation, the one given to the Washington Post offers a different narrative: that Gray injured himself. That document minimizes officer responsibility for the 25-year-old’s death, and it’s emblematic of a larger police strategy to deflect blame.

Scott-police-fatal-shootingIn some instances, officers make false claims that are eventually disproved. Before video of Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back surfaced, North Charleston police claimed Scott grabbed Slager’s Taser and attempted to use it. The Cleveland Police Department said Tamir Rice was sitting at a table, was told multiple times to put his hands up, and reached for his gun before officers shot and killed him. Video later disproved the department’s claims.

In other cases, police disclose background information that has nothing to do with the encounters in question, but which seems to undermine the character of someone who is no longer alive to defend themselves. Sanford Police told the Orlando Sentinel that, prior to his death, Trayvon Martin (who was killed by a private citizen and not a police officer) was suspended for an empty marijuana baggie. In the case against Officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot Oscar Grant in the back while he lay on a train station floor, defense attorneys brought up Grant’s criminal background and history of resisting arrest.

Other times, officials reveal details that fuel local outrage. After Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department released a video of Brown robbing a convenience store. The day before, Captain Ron Johnson took to the streets in solidarity with peaceful demonstrators, and many believed the tide was turning. However, the ill-timed release of the video was subsequently perceived as a power play to distract from Brown’s death.

equal justice fraudBut cops aren’t the only group to affect smear campaigns against victims of lethal police force, as evidenced by the Post’s decision to publish the BPD document. As noted by Al Jazeera, the New York Times published an article about Brown’s recreational activities, saying “he dabbled in drugs and alcohol” and detailed his “rebellious streak.” The Associated Press tweeted that Renisha McBride, who was shot and killed by a Detroit homeowner, was intoxicated. CBS and NBC reported that Scott had a bench warrant for missing child support payments. Northeast Ohio Media Group detailed Rice’s father’s history of domestic violence.

And since the Washington Post article was published last night, people have taken to social media to express their anger:

WaPo isn’t simply smearing someone murdered by police, they are profiting off of smearing someone murdered by police. #FreddieGray

— Remi Kanazi (@Remroum) April 30, 2015

So the Washington Post reports an unnamed prisoner is claiming #FreddieGray willfully injured himself in transport van. For real y’all.

— ReBecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) April 30, 2015

Complete takedown of the lies spread by the Baltimore Police & Washington Post on #FreddieGray http://t.co/N0aYK0ZETe pic.twitter.com/QALCmbKQOu

— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) April 30, 2015

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Walter Scott and the Need for Child Support Reform

by Joy Moses

Scott-police-fatal-shootingWalter Scott’s death was striking because a police officer fired eight shots at him while his back was turned. When something so tragic occurs, observers tend to wonder why. The officer’s actions and utter disrespect for human life can never be justified. But recently, the New York Times published new information about Scott’s split second decision to run — his child support case. According to his brother, “Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support.”

Elements of Scott’s story reflect existing concerns about the child support system. A debate over potential large-scale reform is more than a decade overdue. The seeming impossibility of change has always loomed ominously large, overshadowing calls for reform and pushing them into the dark corners of the policy world. However, at this current political moment, there are national conversations about policing, bipartisan criminal justice reforms and an existing White House initiative focused on men and boys of color — concepts that would have seemed laughable just a few short years ago.

indigent in America

child support can make a man indigent

There are some fathers who absolutely refuse to care for their children and they should be held accountable. However, the current system reaches well beyond that group, creating negative consequences for men who are rarely credited with being caring parents and are simply too poor to pay. The political explosiveness of the “deadbeat dad,” a figure that some researchers say sprang out of the same sources as his female counterpart (the “welfare queen”), helped distort the foundations of child support policy. The system seems to partially rest on underlying beliefs that low-income men, and especially those who are black, avoid work and financially providing for their children at all costs while also being permanently childlike and in need of both discipline and lessons on how to behave.

Over the years, the program has effectively served many families (transferring funds from one parent to another) for which it should be applauded. However, policies built on a foundation of stereotypes about numerous men who don’t want jobs stand in stark contrast to the reality of numerous jobs that don’t want the men. Researchers like William Julius Wilson (More Than Just Race), have documented decades long trends of disappearing job opportunities for low-skilled workers as well as increased criminal justice involvement which further leads to employment discrimination.

billboard-crimeWhen entities spend significant time on activities that fail to help and that actually hurt parents and families, it’s often useful to redirect their energies elsewhere. Reforms should shift the program mission and values away from damaging racial stereotypes that hurt families of all races and towards efforts to accurately diagnose the needs of families and take ‘pro-social’ action to address them.

One useful primary goal would be to comprehensively address the family law needs of low and middle-income families, helping with a very real challenge — the increasing and extraordinarily large number of families who can’t afford an attorney or who don’t feel comfortable representing themselves in legal matters. In doing so, agencies should assume that parents of all racial and class groupings share in a desire to care for their children, suggesting that they be treated with respect and provided with quality customer service. This would build upon efforts to accurately identify bad dads whose non-payment is rooted in an adamant refusal rather than their economic circumstances.

chronic-stressWith such a vision, services would start to look much different. No longer treated as enemies of the state, low-income fathers would be less likely to literally and figuratively run away from child support. The sole focus wouldn’t be on a father’s monetary value but on improving father-family relationships. Court decisions and unaddressed legal needs would be replaced by model practices like mediation that support mothers and fathers in making their own decisions for their families. Punishments like imprisonment would be replaced by employment assistance. And other proposed reforms designed to guarantee child support for women and children would avoid potential incentives to hound men for unaffordable reimbursements of funds states pay out to women and children.

Some states have already experimented with such reforms, finding positive results that have included increased child support payments by fathers and greater parental satisfaction with agency services. The Obama Administration has encouraged states to adopt these best practices while proposing helpful new rules. However, there are limits to the changes that can occur without Congress overhauling currently existing state requirements and incentives.

We need a fruitful, progressive conversation that abandons a focus on the status quo and reform efforts that toy around existing edges — instead choosing a new vision for the future that endeavors to do the hard work of changing the culture and functioning of a system that means so much to so many.

—-

Of course, there is no mention in this article about U.N. Treaty or the Bradley Amendment, which prohibits child support arrears from being changed or removed – but the article does pretend to care (and is much kinder than I am). Meanwhile, the welfare queens still have control over America at great cost to all Americans. – MJR

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Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.

captiveBy his own telling, the first time Walter L. Scott went to jail for failure to pay child support, it sent his life into a tailspin. He lost what he called “the best job I ever had” when he spent two weeks in jail. Some years he paid. More recently, he had not. Two years ago, when his debt reached nearly $8,000 and he missed a court date, a warrant was issued for his arrest. By last month, the amount had more than doubled, to just over $18,000.

That warrant, his family now speculates, loomed large in Mr. Scott’s death. On April 4, he was pulled over for a broken taillight, fled on foot and, after a scuffle with a police officer, was fatally shot in the back.

The warrant, the threat of another stay behind bars and the potential loss of yet another job caused him to run, a brother, Rodney Scott, said.

Scott-police-fatal-shooting“Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support,” said Mr. Scott, whose brother was working as a forklift operator when he died. “He got to the point where he felt like it defeated the purpose.”

Walter Scott’s death has focused attention not just on police violence, but also on the use of jail to pressure parents to pay child support, a policy employed by many states today. Though the threat of jail is considered an effective incentive for people who are able but unwilling to pay, many critics assert that punitive policies are trapping poor men in a cycle of debt, unemployment and imprisonment.

all about the greenbacksThe problem begins with child support orders that, at the outset, can exceed parents’ ability to pay. When parents fall short, the authorities escalate collection efforts, withholding up to 65 percent of a paycheck, seizing bank deposits and tax refunds, suspending driver’s licenses and professional licenses, and then imposing jail time.

“Parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for child support debt simply because they’re poor,” said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed a class-action lawsuit in Georgia on behalf of parents incarcerated without legal representation for failure to pay. “We see many cases in which the person is released, they’re given three months to pay a large amount of money, and then if they can’t do that they’re tossed right back in the county jail.”

There is no national count of how many parents are incarcerated for failure to pay child support, and enforcement tactics vary from state to state, as do policies such as whether parents facing jail are given court-appointed lawyers. But in 2009, a survey in South Carolina found that one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed in 2010. The Record of Hackensack, N.J., reported last year that 1,800 parents had been jailed or given ankle monitors in two New Jersey counties in 2013. (The majority of noncustodial parents nationwide are men.)

rich guyUnpaid child support became a big concern in the 1980s and ’90s as public hostility grew toward the archetypal “deadbeat dad” who lived comfortably while his children suffered. Child support collections were so spotty that in the late 1990s, new enforcement tools such as automatic paycheck deductions were used. As a result, child support collections increased significantly, and some parents rely heavily on aggressive enforcement by the authorities.

But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid child support is owed by the very poor. A 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income. They were expected to pay, on average, 83 percent of their income in child support — a percentage that declined precipitously in higher income brackets.

dollar bondageIn many jurisdictions, support orders are based not on the parent’s actual income but on “imputed income” — what they would be expected to earn if they had a full-time, minimum wage or median wage job. In South Carolina, the unemployment rate for black men is 12 percent.

The Obama administration is trying to change some of these policies, proposing to rewrite enforcement rules to require that child support orders be based on actual income and consider the “subsistence needs” of the noncustodial parent, to bar states from allowing child support debt to accrue while parents are incarcerated and to finance more job placement services for them.

“While every parent has a responsibility to support their kids to the best of their ability, the tools developed in the 1990s are designed for people who have money,” said Vicki Turetsky, the commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. “Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”

kangaroo courtUnder a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, courts are not supposed to jail a defendant without a specific finding that he or she has the ability to pay. But that process does not always work as intended, especially when the client does not have a lawyer, advocates for the poor say.

In the Georgia class-action case, the plaintiffs were jailed in civil contempt-of-court proceedings in which they did not have lawyers. They included three veterans — one who had paid $75,000 in child support but fell behind when he lost his civilian job because of combat-related stress and family deaths; a second who was mentally ill and had a letter from a Veterans Affairs doctor saying he was unable to work; and a third who was incarcerated despite having paid $3,796 toward his debt by working odd jobs.

But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against them, saying they did not have a categorical right to a lawyer.

Walter Scott

Walter Scott

Walter Scott had four children, two in the early 1990s outside of marriage, and two in the late 1990s with a woman to whom he was married. The marriage crumbled when one of the children was still a toddler, and Lisa Scott, his estranged wife, began writing letters to family court asking for help.

“My husband bears no responsibility for his family,” she wrote in 2000.

In an article about a parenting program published in The Post and Courier of Charleston in 2003, Mr. Scott said that he had fallen behind when the checks he sent to a state agency for his ex-wife were mistakenly directed to the mother of his first children. (The South Carolina Department of Social Services, citing privacy laws, said it could not verify his account.)

Mr. Scott eventually spent two weeks in jail — a stint that cost him a $35,000-a-year job at a filmmaking company and sent him into isolation and alcohol abuse, he told The Post and Courier.

“I got mad at everybody in the whole world because I just lost the best job I ever had,” he said. “I just stopped doing everything.”

In 2002, Mr. Scott, further behind on his payments, agreed to participate in a parenting program called Father to Father and pay $350 a month. Mr. Scott reunited with his family, turned himself in for the unpaid child support and served another five months in jail.

burning the constitutionStill, Charleston County Family Court records show that he remained in a cycle of unpaid child support debt, stints in jail and more threats of time behind bars. The records also show that when Mr. Scott was working in 2011, $125.76 was deducted from his check each week. He paid $11,411 that year, which included a lump-sum payment. But he was behind again in July 2012, and he paid $3,500, his last recorded payment, to avoid jail. The money came from his parents, Mr. Scott’s brother Rodney said.

Rodney Scott said his brother resented that his ex-wife was not required to work and that the pressure was always on him to pay support. Critics of the child support system say this imbalance is reflected in rules that say that if a mother receives public assistance, the father must pay it back, even if he is also poor. In many cases, though not in Mr. Scott’s, child support actions are brought by state officials seeking welfare reimbursement.

Lisa Scott could not be reached at addresses or phone numbers listed in her name. Samantha Scott, a daughter from Mr. Scott’s first relationship, said she had never heard her own mother complain about a lack of support. “If he had money, he would give it to us,” she said.

Ms. Turetsky, the head of the federal child support office, said the system should be based on the expectation that both parents would contribute toward their children’s needs. “It’s nuts,” she said of the policy of making destitute fathers repay welfare. “She gets the assistance; he gets charged with the bill.”

image of dadJahmal Holmes, 28, is a current participant in the Father to Father program in North Charleston. He has two children, 4 and 8, and said he had agreed to court-ordered child support because he had been told that it was a requirement for their mother to receive Medicaid. The two have since broken up and share custody of the younger child, but he is still required to pay support for both.

Mr. Holmes said he did not realize that if he fell behind on payments, he would face jail. “I am behind now, and they are threatening to suspend my driver’s license — and I’m a truck driver,” he said. “When I saw that Walter Scott died, and he was in this program, that touched me emotionally. I see myself trying to get out of that situation.”

Scott-happier-timesRodney Scott said that he sometimes thought his brother did not do everything he could to catch up, but that Walter seemed to consider it a hopeless cause. He recalled seeing his brother plead to a judge that he just did not make enough money.

“He asked the judge, ‘How am I supposed to live?’ ” Mr. Scott said. “And the judge said something like, ‘That’s your problem. You figure it out.’ ”

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The Brilliant Idea From Europe That Could Revolutionize Child Support

by Bryce Covert

Scott-police-fatal-shootingWalter Scott, a father to four children, was shot dead by a police officer later charged with first-degree murder while running away from him. One of the many questions some asked after the news of the shooting broke in the national press was why he might flee such an encounter. His family said it was because he owed so much in unpaid child support. “I believe he didn’t want to go to jail again. He just ran away,” Walter Scott Sr. told the press.

If this is why Scott ran, his fear wasn’t necessarily unfounded. At least one in eight incarcerated South Carolinians were jailed over the last decade after failing to pay child support, and across the country as many as 50,000 parents may end up behind bars for the same reason. This punishment is perhaps the most extreme end of the aggressive measures states use to go after noncustodial parents who don’t pay up, which also include wage garnishment, revoking driver’s and professional licenses, and taking away passports.

captiveBut this strategy doesn’t necessarily help the parents who need child support, usually single mothers, and does little to help the fathers get jobs that pay enough to allow them to send money to their kids. A jailed father can’t earn any income, but his child support debts often keep accruing. Many states don’t allow people to reduce or suspend their child support obligations while they’re in jail, so they end up leaving with $15,000 to $30,000 in debt. They also face a more difficult time finding employment when they get out.

Yet child support is a vital source of income for custodial parents, and single mothers are particularly likely to be poor, with more than 40 percent of them living in poverty. Among poor parents who actually receive child support, it makes up four-tenths of their income. But just 43.4 percent got the full amount they were owed in 2011; on average, parents are owed an unpaid $2,281.

So what could be done to better ensure single mothers get the money they need to help them raise their children while reforming a system that penalizes poor fathers who can’t pay?

black-dadThe best model is likely to be found in Europe. As of 2010, all European countries except the Netherlands guaranteed child support payments to custodial parents even if the noncustodial parent couldn’t pay or could only pay part. Sweden goes even further and has a guaranteed assistance program in which all custodial parents get a child support payment from the government no matter what, and the government then collects what it can from the noncustodial ones. Such a system seems to work — 95 percent of these parents get child support payments. This system “gets you a guaranteed minimum benefit whatever the nonresident father can pay,” explained Irwin Garfinkel, a professor of social work at Columbia University.

He thinks this model could significantly improve the system if the United States were to take the same tactic. “From the perspective of the children, I would say that’s the single most important thing that could be done,” Garfinkel said.

equal justice fraudAny such reform, however, would also have to be paired with changes to how we calculate what noncustodial parents owe. American fathers have the highest obligations among 14 of the richest countries, even if they are poor or unemployed (in eight countries, an unemployed father doesn’t owe anything). The U.S. is one of four that doesn’t exempt some portion of the noncustodial parent’s income for basic living expenses. Only five countries are so extreme as to jail fathers who don’t pay.

Garfinkel proposes making sure the obligation is always a percentage of the noncustodial parent’s income. “That would protect the fathers,” he said. “If you express the obligations as a percent of income, it would automatically reduce the amount of harassment possible.” If a father has no income coming in, then he wouldn’t be obligated to pay and wouldn’t keep racking up debts as many do now. Mothers would also benefit in the long run, given that even a poor father’s income is likely to eventually increase down the road.

stressed single motherA guaranteed payment program, particularly one that doesn’t always try to recoup the costs from low-income fathers who can’t pay, would not come for free. But Garfinkel thinks the amount would be negligible compared to the benefits reaped. Even if custodial parents were guaranteed a payment as high as $3,000 a year, he estimated it would cost the government about $10 billion. Compared to the overall federal budget, “it’s not a big number and it would make a massive difference,” he argued. Poor mothers would not just have more income to invest in their children, but the stability of steady payments could be even more beneficial for children’s development.

Strangely, part of the American system was meant to act somewhat akin to Sweden’s for the very poorest, but today ends up being counterproductive. When welfare was reformed in the 1990s, one change enacted ensured that if a custodial parent gets benefits from Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF), any child support payments from the noncustodial parent are taken by the state, not doled out to the parent. “That was the basic concept of welfare,” explained Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center, “that the state would pay public assistance and then collect child support and keep the child support to reimburse itself.”

stingy state 2Today, however, TANF payments are nearly all worth less than they were in 1996 and only reach a quarter of eligible families. Meanwhile, the system usually serves to discourage poor fathers from paying their obligations, given that they know their money isn’t going to actually make it to their children and the families aren’t usually getting an adequate amount of help from the state. As Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator at CLASP, a policy organization for low-income people, put it, “Why on earth would you pay money to go to the state?”

One state, Wisconsin, experimented with changing its program from one where it withholds all child support payments for welfare recipients to now being the only one that directly gives custodial parents most of the support the noncustodial parent pays. In 2006, it evaluated this change and found that it ended up increasing how much noncustodial parents paid and how many custodial parents got support. More states could consider doing the same, but they aren’t incentivized to: they would have to make up for the money they no longer took from child support payments.

rich guyThere are also some efforts across the country to change the way that noncustodial parents’ support obligations are calculated. Currently, when courts hear from a father that he doesn’t have a job or enough money to pay support, some states still calculate the child support payment on his supposed earning capacity or deem that he voluntarily lowered his earnings by taking a lower paying job or even getting fired. And, of course, there is the fact that if a father ends up going to jail over unpaid support, he can still keep accruing debt while he’s there. The Office of Child Support Enforcement proposed changes at the end of last year that would base child support orders on actual earnings and income, not imputed income, and allow incarcerated people to modify their orders rather than treating it as voluntary unemployment.

Some states have also experimented with incarceration diversion programs that would allow noncustodial parents to enter into employment services rather than go to jail. Texas has one of the longest-standing programs, which has increased child support payments and made them more consistent, even after participants leave the program. The challenge, however, is that there isn’t any dedicated funding available to states to create these programs beyond diverting money from the TANF block grant they receive.

Some advocates are aiming higher, however. Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, wants to get rid of the system for the poorest parents altogether. As a paper Irwin Garfinkel co-authored in 2010 notes, “A serious problem with the public child support system is that at its inception, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement viewed itself exclusively as a law enforcement agency. As a result, fathers have been viewed as lawbreakers rather than clients.” The paper recommends shifting it to more of a social welfare agency than simply about the law.

Boggess’ group is pushing a recommendation to fundamentally change this dynamic: “Taking the poorest families out of the child support system and making sure their children get taken care of,” she said. She noted that the way the system works for these families now, both the custodial and noncustodial parents are assumed to be shirking. “Women are shirking [because they] need to get a job, and men are shirking so we put them in jail,” she said. Instead, she wants the system to “stop taking that perspective and take the perspective that they’re like the rest of us, they want to take care of their children.” That would mean instead creating programs for these families that would focus more on giving them a leg up: housing, income support, employment services.

overthrow

The War on Fatherhood in the United States

The South Carolina Killing & the Child Support Racket

by Phyllis Schafly

Scott-police-fatal-shootingWhy was Walter Scott running away from a policeman who tried to stop him because of a broken tail light? The media are trying to make a South Carolina policeman’s killing of a black man, Walter Scott, another sensational case of racism, but the media have missed the point of the tragedy.

The problem wasn’t racism, or even dangerous driving or stolen property. It was caused by the obnoxious anti-father rulings of the family courts and Scott’s fear that he would be returned to debtors’ prison. Scott had already been jailed three times for failure to pay child support, and he didn’t want to be sent to prison again.

captiveDebtors’ prisons were common in England in the colonial period. You can read about them in the writings of Charles Dickens, who wrote from firsthand knowledge; his own father spent time in a debtors’ prison.

We kicked out British rule by the American Revolution and abolished some of its trappings, such as royalty and its titles, primogeniture and bowing to our top national official. We thought we abolished debtors’ prisons even before we abolished slavery, but they continue to exist today to punish men who are too poor to pay what is falsely labeled “child support.”

We say “falsely” because the money collected from the poor guy usually doesn’t go to his kid or her mother. It just supports the welfare-state bureaucracy.

Of course, it wasn’t wise to try to outrun the policeman’s gun, but this sad event should make us re-evaluate the policy of repeatedly sending a penniless man to jail for failure to pay so-called child support.

These guys don’t have the money to hire a defense lawyer, which he should be given when jail is the cost of losing the case.

burning the constitutionWhen corporations can’t pay their debts, they can take bankruptcy, which means they pay off their debts for pennies on the dollar over many years. But a man can never get an alleged “child support” debt forgiven or reduced, even if he is out of a job, penniless, homeless, medically incapacitated, incarcerated (justly or unjustly), can’t afford a lawyer, serving in our Armed Forces overseas, isn’t the father, or never owed the money in the first place.

The reason “child support” debt can never be reduced by the court is the Bradley Amendment, named after a Democratic senator from New Jersey and one-time presidential candidate. That law should be repealed.

Fifteen years ago, a family court judge threw Scott in jail because he hadn’t made his child support payments on time, and that meant he lost his $35,000-a-year job at a film company, “the best job I ever had.” He then found some odd jobs but couldn’t make enough money to make the support payments the government demanded.

indigent in AmericaThe whole idea that a poor man is expected to support two households, including one with a child he never sees and may not even be his, is contrary to common sense and to all human experience. In too many cases, DNA investigations revealed that the poor guy is not the father of the kid for whom he is ordered to pay child support.

Scott seemed to turn a corner, but after making a couple of payments he fell behind again and was sent back to jail. He said, “This whole time in jail, my child support is still going up.”

Walter Scott’s older brother, Anthony Scott, told the Charleston Post and Courier, “Everybody knows why he ran away.” A bench warrant had been issued for his arrest for failure to pay enough child support.

A survey of county jails in South Carolina found that at least one out of every eight incarcerated people is there for not paying so-called child support. All this imprisonment is imposed without any jury trial, due process, or the benefit of a lawyer to defend the guy.

According to CUNY Law School professor Ann Cammett, an expert on incarcerated parents who owe child support, “We have zero evidence that it works. If the goal of the child support system is to get support for children, parents can’t do that if they’re incarcerated.”

kangaroo courtOne case on this issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, but it didn’t produce much relief. Michael Turner of South Carolina argued that his constitutional rights had been violated because he didn’t have a lawyer at his hearing, even though jail was the penalty if he lost. The Court ordered some minimal “procedural safeguards,” but didn’t tackle the issue of giving a father the fundamental right of due process before sending him to jail.

We hope Walter Scott’s death may help some dads in the future who are unfairly treated by the family courts, not given a lawyer, denied due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

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