June 12, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The Walter Scott case may be fading from the front pages, but the reform of child support laws, guidelines and practices becomes a hotter topic by the day. Scott of course was the South Carolina man who was seen on video fleeing from a traffic stop only to be gunned down by the police officer. The officer has since been indicted on a murder charge.
But after his death, Scott’s brother pointed out that the reason he ran was that he didn’t want to return to jail for child support arrears. Scott had lost the best job he’d ever had because he was behind on his payments. That of course meant he went to prison where he fell further behind and, when he got out, he didn’t have a job which meant he fell still further behind. Many pointed out the obvious – that causing an employed man to lose his job was the exact opposite of what a child support system should do. Scott’s brother said that, after several such incarcerations, Scott just didn’t see the point of fighting a system that was more interested in putting him behind bars than it was in seeing his child receive the support she was due.
Now comes this letter to the editor by Dr. Brenda Williams, M.D. of Sumter, SC (The State, 6/10/15). She’s the head of an organization called The Family Unit and she’s got some information for anyone who’s interested in making child support laws and practices more sensible. I thought I knew a lot about the child support system, but Dr. Williams’s letter taught me a few things. It seems The Family Unit did a study of child support cases and the results are alarming, albeit not surprising.
My non-profit group, The Family Unit, recently studied the incarceration of non-custodial parents in Sumter County for non-payment of child support. We found that 87 percent of those incarcerated are African-Americans and the majority are indigent, don’t have a high school diploma, live in low-income neighborhoods and are unemployed.
We always knew that the weight of the unjust system of child support fell most heavily on the poor, but The Family Unit’s figures let us know the specifics. Remember, this is South Carolina, one of five states that don’t allow indigent parents owing child support a state-appointed lawyer to defend them. These parents go to court armed only with their limited educations and inability to know what the system expects of them in the typically five-minute “hearing” they’re given to make their case.
And let’s not forget the findings I reported on last year out of Massachusetts. Based on all the incarcerations of parents for child support arrears in the state except three counties, those data revealed that some 98% of those incarcerated were fathers. Of course that could have been because so many more fathers than mothers are non-custodial parents, but it wasn’t. Nationwide, non-custodial mothers are less likely to pay what they owe in child support even though they’re ordered to pay less than dads. So there were plenty of mothers in the Bay State who failed to pay what they owed, but, but even at that, the data showed them to be only one-eighth as likely as fathers to be incarcerated for their failure.
Most of them had jobs at the time of the arrest but lost them due to prolonged absence brought on by lengthy jail sentences, which range from four to 12 months. Several were arrested at work and ushered away from the job site in handcuffs. To add insult to injury, the child support tally keeps rising and rising, so the amount owed increases significantly while the parent is locked behind bars with no way to pay.
That’s Walter Scott’s story all over again. He was working for a film company making $36k per year and whittling down his arrears when he was arrested and lost his job. What I didn’t know was that the courts of Sumter County incarcerate these parents for a minimum of four months. I figured it was 30 days like it is in so many jurisdictions.
But now comes the real crime.
Additionally, scores of non-custodial parents are ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fees to the attorneys of the custodial parents. The court commonly rules that attorneys must be paid in full, either immediately or within one to four months. Failure to pay means incarceration for at least 90 days.
Ah! We’re routinely told that child support money goes to the child. After all, isn’t that what it’s meant for? But we also know that much of the nationwide arrears is made up of interest that until recently was charged at rates as high as 12% per year. Now we learn that South Carolina tacks on attorney fees to those bills. That money doesn’t go to the child.
And finally, Dr. Williams lets us know that, in Sumter County, judges are free to punish debtors as they see fit, resulting in broad disparities in sanctions from court to court.
Our study also discovered that there are no rules or guidelines for family court judges to follow when handling delinquent child-support cases: Some parents are not given jail time at all. Others are given lengthy sentences, even though they may owe less money than those who aren’t jailed.
Dr. Williams closes thus:
Incarceration because of one’s inability to pay debt is unconstitutional, discriminatory and a throwback to the debtors’ prisons of yesteryear. Well-structured community service requirements are much more productive and would enable families to form stronger bonds.
The child-support enforcement system is dysfunctional and must be revisited, reviewed and reformed.
I couldn’t agree more. Fortunately, as I’ve reported before, the Office of Child Support Enforcement has announced its intention to make reasonable improvements to the way states set and collect child support. Commissioner Vicki Turetsky gathered comments on the proposed changes last year and the OCSE intends to make its decisions on reform public later this summer. The National Parents Organization took the lead in recruiting commenters on the new regulations, many of which (though not all) would make significant improvements in the way child support is established, collected and enforced.
Unfortunately, certain members of Congress have announced their intention to intervene (at this late date) in the regulatory process and undo Turetsky’s good work. I’ll post more about that next time.
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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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