Last year I reported here on the case of Michigan woman, Edwina Nowlin, who was jailed by a judge for her inability to pay a fine her son had incurred. She was destitute and couldn’t pay the fine, so the judge jailed her. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, she appealed her incarceration saying that it is unconstitutional to be jailed for a debt that she was incapable of paying. She won. The court ruled that “debtor’s prison” is an artifact of a bygone era and unconstitutional in the United States, at least when the person is unable to pay.
At the time, I wrote to the Michigan ACLU and asked if they thought the same reasoning could be applied to child support debtors. They didn’t respond. But whatever the private thoughts of the ACLU attorneys may be on the matter, I’d still like to know.
So, I suspect would Jeff Dolan of Minnesota. Read about him here (National Post, 6/21/10). His is a story that should have sane people screaming.
Despite being somewhat learning disabled, Dolan graduated from high school and maintained employment in the construction trades. When the Minnesota economy started to go south, Dolan did too, moving to Texas to work in the oil fields. But when he came back to Minnesota, he was met by a restraining order filed by his wife claiming abuse. As few will be surprised to learn, it was part of her trial tactics in their divorce and custody case. So, lacking employment, Dolan tried to both defend the abuse allegations and get custody of his kids.
He was exonerated on the abuse charge, but was denied primary custody. Lawyers fees and court costs had bankrupted him and that made it impossible for him to come up with the child support he was ordered to pay. That meant that he lost his license to drive. At one point he was offered a well-paying job, but it required him to drive a car, so he couldn’t accept it. It didn’t take long for him to be jailed for non-payment of child support, so now he has to report his incarceration on any job application he makes.
As the article says, Jeff Dolan is no deadbeat, but the same court that requires him to support his children, simultaneously made certain he couldn’t. If I were him, I’d talk to the local ACLU. There’s precedent holding that a person can’t be jailed for a debt he is unable to pay.
But whatever happens with Dolan, whatever happens to his children who are now effectively fatherless and who have no way of ever receiving the money he owes, consider this: this is the mess we have made. In our rush to brand every father a deadbeat, our elected representatives passed laws that assume just that. And yet, there’s plenty of evidence that fathers want to support their children and desire a full relationship with them. Jeff Dolan certainly did and yet look what happened: a court that calls itself a family court, applying the laws of the State of Minnesota, accomplished a couple of remarkable things. It deprived, possibly forever, two children of their loving father and made sure he couldn’t pay to support them.
Those two facts reflect a level of incompetence on the part of the “family” court system that would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. I’d call it “The Three Stooges Go to Family Court” but for the fact that real people – not movie actors – suffer the consequences. Maybe when they grow up Jeff Dolan’s kids will go to the judge and ask for an explanation of why he destroyed their father and then took him from them. If they do, I know what he’ll say. “It was the law.”