The modern child support system is critically flawed in numerous ways.
Outdated gender biases that continue to stack the deck against fathers still pervade the system. Repeatedly, we see instances of well-intentioned dads kicked in the gut by the system despite their wishes to do whatever they can to help raise their kids.
Rather than help custodial parents and children, the system is counterproductive and drives deep wedges between families.
Arguably the system’s most critical fault is the manner in which it unfairly punishes incarcerated noncustodial parents (most often fathers). Child support does not stop during unemployment, and in 14 states it doesn’t matter if that unemployment is because of incarceration, which is considered a form of “voluntary impoverishment.” That means that while these fathers are incarcerated, their arrears continue to accumulate and they often face massive debt once they’re released that hinders their reentry back into the community.
This cycle can snowball with disastrous consequences as it did in the case of Walter Scott. In April, Scott was shot and killed by a South Carolina police officer after he fled from his vehicle. Scott’s family speculated that the reason he was running away is because there was a bench warrant out for his arrest for unpaid child support.
Eli Hager of The Marshall Project covered this vicious process in depth in a recent piece that appeared in The Washington Post.
The story leads by telling the story of Earl L. Harris, who was sent to prison in 1997 for selling marijuana when he was 19. Harris didn’t owe any child support when he entered prison, but the arrears, interest and other fees quickly started accumulating. When he was released in 2001, he owed more than $10,000.
After being released, he struggled to find employment, returned to drug dealing and was sent back to prison. He now owes nearly $25,000.
Harris admits he isn’t innocent. Selling drugs as a new father, regardless of youth or other circumstances, was a mistake and he deserved punishment. However, as is often the case with the child support system, he hasn’t been given a fair chance to work his way back into being a productive member of society.
Consider these statistics Hager presented: A father with two kids serving a 10-year prison sentence would end up owing $46,320 in child support. During that time, he would earn $4,160 making the median wage in state prisons.
This is all counterintuitive for a myriad of reasons. Maintaining positive familial relationships and employment are considered the two most important factors in helping prisoners reenter the community – both of which are hampered by overly aggressive child support enforcement policies.
Even when fathers start repaying their debt, their money often goes to the state – rather than the mother or child – as repayment for welfare, child care or Medicaid benefits. That further disincentivizes fathers to advance in their careers when they know their money is just going to continue going to the government.
However, within the plethora of depressing statistics and anecdotes in Hager’s story was a major reason for optimism. Hager detailed the Obama administration’s plan to establish a system that is more rehabilitative than punitive.
The administration has authorized new regulations that would go into effect by 2017 that would reclassify incarceration as involuntary and allow incarcerated parents to pause their child support payments while imprisoned.
The regulations would also urge states to send all payments directly to custodial parents.
Perhaps most significantly, nearly $35 million would be used 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 policy faces opposition from Congressional Republicans who fear the consequences of putting the burden of children’s welfare on taxpayers. Even supporters of the regulations concede this is a thin line to walk. Fathers who are unwilling to pay support and avoid their support obligations should be held accountable.
But there is evidence that a system that emphasizes rehabilitative policies rather than punitive ones could be effective.
Europe utilizes a system that guarantees support payments to custodial parents even if the noncustodial parent can’t pay or can only pay part. The system is much more effective at ensuring noncustodial parents and their children are provided for as 95 percent of the parents receive support payments.
Domestically, several states are trying out a five-year federal pilot program that looks very similar to the proposals put forth by the Obama administration.
The $2.3 million program, which is state-run and federally funded, focuses on getting noncustodial parents more involved in their children’s lives by giving parents unable to pay support because of unemployment or underemployment the resources and skills they need to find a better job and become a better parent.
All the data about the program is drawn from an extremely small sample, so no broad conclusions can be made about its overall effectiveness. But early returns have been positive.
The Denver Post reported in August that of the 900 people admitted to the program in the first six months, 68 percent of those who receive the enhanced services found full-time employment and 77 percent are paying child support. A quarter previously didn’t have legal access to their children but do now.
Not only does a rehabilitative child support program increase the amount of support noncustodial parents and children receive, but it also can help maximize the role fathers play in kids’ lives, which can aid biological, social and behavioral development. These work hand in hand as research also shows that the more access fathers are given to their children, the more support they are likely to provide.
It should always be the aim of family courts to look out for the best interests of children. However, we see time and time again that the current child support system does just the opposite.
Hopefully, the reforms proposed by the Obama administration will help make significant strides in modernizing the system and changing the status quo.