Could Meaningful Child Support Reform Be On The Horizon?

child supportThe 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Outdated gender biases that continue to stack the deck against fathers still pervade the system.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.

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13 comments on “Could Meaningful Child Support Reform Be On The Horizon?

    I think child support enforcers are the worst people. There is no compassion for people and what goes on in there lives . this system needs to be ripped apart and put back together properly.

    Fact! I pay child support and I am in my child’s life. Never have I ever gave the impression that I wasn’t going to be a father. But when me and my son’s mom broke up in January, I got a child support letter in March. She was just being spiteful and mean.

    Reform this crap now! This is totally bias to the fathers…mothers spending it on clothes, going out, etc. There should be no more child support or payment to arrears upon the age of 18. PERIOD!!!! And, stop all this arresting and suspending licensure when someone is in between jobs…STOP ALL THE MADNESS AND DESTRUCTION FOR THESE FATHERS. How can they pay when you thrown them in jail or other obnoxious acts that jeopardize their jobs, etc. ALSO, child support payments should be better regulated like in the form of a card that can ONLY be utilized for items related to children. Stop the abuse and misuse of these payments!!! Also, there should be limits to how many children can go on child support…2 per household. If they woman wants to continue spitting them it, IT’S ON HER DIME!!

    I am living below the poverty line I’m over 60 years old they say I have rears from child support that equals almost $70,000 my children’s all over 21 and they live in Germany also Germany’s law says I have no parental rights Texas Law Center says that doesn’t matter I should still pay child support but I haven’t saw the children since they were about five six years old I had no phone call contacts no letters no mail I have no idea if they did I live I have no address I asked the child support to give me an address they said I have to do it myself there’s no way from me knowing where they live to write a letter.

    My child support order was originated in Germany they also told me that I had no parental rights on their right to pay in Texas they say that the court is the only one that can terminate parental rights and with no parental rights I have no choice but to pay that is so unfair I haven’t saw the children since 1995 they are now grown and I have paid some child support throughout that time and I’ve had consistent jobs they deducted eight years plus and now the children’s of grown and now they’re saying that I was $75,000 that is so unfair they tell me that it don’t matter if you don’t have rights or not you still have to pay unfair.

    Child support has nothing to do with children. No, the courts should not continue to “act in the best interest of the children”. They will destroy your children without a second thought in the name of “the children’s best interest”. They will take away every right you have and put you in jail in the name of “children’s best interest”.

    This is the most disgusting, immoral system ever devised. I would gladly support my children 100% percent, but the family court plays a cute game of taking your kids and then charging and threatening you for the privilege of losing your kids.

    I think it is also very unreasonable that the person receiving child support does not need to justify where that support is going. I believe, maybe unreasonably, that after divorce both parents are still responsible for the financial support of the children. In that case, if I am paying, say, $1,500 per month, it means that the other party is also putting $1,500 toward the children. Why don’t I have a right to know how the custodial parent is spending my children’s money? And if there is any left, is that being accumulated for my children or is my ex living the life? Is that fair for my children?

    This was very informative I unfortunately was incarcerated for 2 years and now have accumulated high arrears my life my job my reputation have been affected I paid prior too I’m currently plead guilty to criminal non support I’m on probation and my son is in the navy for 8 years living in California my probation officer will not let me leave the state of Ohio which is very unfair I’m current on all my child support orders it’s unfair I can’t go visit my son which I pay child support every month if u can help in any way 216 778 o401 Robert johnson

    Is child support really fair? 20 to 30 %, extra bedrooms, full insurance, half medical bills, and only a visitor? Does not custodial parent have to pay bills with or without kids?

    I was paying regularly and had my payment deducted electronically, child support enforcement didn’t deduct the proper amount and claimed I was behind they suspended my lisence and now I’m pretty much homeless and terrified to go back to work as ill just be picked up and incarcerated again for trying to do the right thing. I’ve cut grass and shoveld snow to buy diapers for my other children and struggled to provide for them all the while dissapointed and ashamed of myself and who I am. Its basically got me on the verge of suicide as ill never be able to get a licence again and I can’t even buy my oldest son equipment too play football or any of the numerous things children his age need. And even if I could pay the 480 a month it would just go to the state anyway, its horrible its completely ruined my life and my ability to provide for my family. And I am not a dead beat father I took pride in paying my payments and the mother just extorted me every chance she got and when I tried a dressing these things with the judge he told me it this was the wrong court. I don’t know what else too do anymore I don’t feel like a man my reputation is tarnished and I don’t see how ill ever be able to be the father my kids deserve. I feel so bad for all the dads out there who feel hopeless and lost.

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