It’s apparent that the child-support system in the United States is, at best, flawed.
Perhaps the system’s biggest failing is how it treats low-income parents who lack the ability to pay. Once they fall behind on payments, even if it’s because of involuntary unemployment, arrears start accumulating and it creates an unending cycle that often leads to incarceration.
While in jail, the debt continues building. The support the child needs is never received and a wedge is driven between families. The recent shooting death of Walter Scott, who was shot to death by a South Carolina police officer after he fled because he owed child support, illustrates just how slippery this slope can be.
Fathers stuck in the system feel hopeless. Even if politicians were genuinely committed to fixing the problem, effectively overhauling the system would likely take years.
However, a five-year federal pilot program is taking a different approach to the child-support problem and yielding positive results.
Jeremy Meyer recently examined how this program, which eight states are currently using, is working in a column that ran in the Denver Post.
The $2.3 million program is state-run and federally funded. The core focus of the program is simple: get noncustodial parents more involved in their children’s lives. It aims to achieve this by giving parents who are unable to pay support because of unemployment or underemployment the resources and skills needed to find a better job and become a better parent. It offers parenting classes, teaches job skills and helps clients modify child support orders.
In Colorado, the program, which is called the Colorado Parent Employment Project, is only offered in five counties, so all the data comes from a small sample size, but the results so far have been extremely encouraging.
Meyer writes that about 900 people have been admitted and 68 percent who receive the program’s enhanced services have found full-time work and 77 percent are now paying child support. A quarter of the parents enrolled previously didn’t have access to their children but now do.
The federal government is analyzing the program and has proposed a rule change that would allow all states to use federal money for similar programs.
In theory, the reason the pilot program is successful is that it works with fathers instead of against them. The current system punishes rather than rehabilitates.
Treating fathers who fail to pay child support like criminals is extremely problematic. Although the deadbeat dad myth looms large in society, research shows that even fathers who are unable to offer any financial support to their children manage to find other ways to contribute to the child’s upbringing.
Journalist and author Kimberly Seals Allers recently commented on this dilemma poignantly when describing why she forgave her ex-husband of nearly $40,000 in child support debt for the sake of her children.
“We know that the system is broken,” she said. “… There are so many variables that come into play and it’s very dangerous when we put all fathers in the same pot and say that if you don’t do this one thing … that you’re going to be penalized and possibly put into prison.”
Hopefully, more states eventually adopt rehabilitative systems of child support and this is the first step towards meaningful child-support reform.