MSNBC Gets it Right on Child Support Enforcement

The news media don’t often get it right about fathers, children and family courts, but when they do, I like to say so. 

In this article, Mike Brunker of MSNBC nails just about all of the important points about child support and the jailing of dads who are too poor to pay (MSNBC, 9/11/11).  The piece includes much of what’s appeared in the Fathers and Families blog over the years, so it’s not exactly new, but the fact that MSNBC is running it is itself newsworthy.

Brunker’s chief concern is that parents (overwhelmingly fathers) who are too poor to pay support, nevertheless are found to be “in willful contempt” of court and are sent to jail.  There they can’t work, can’t earn, can’t see their kids and all the while their indebtedness increases.

He cites cases familiar to most people who follow this issue.  Randy Miller, the Iraq war veteran, who paid regularly until he lost his job, has been in the news a lot.  He’s so far spent 90 days behind bars for the crime of poverty.  When he went inside, his bank account showed less than a $2.00 balance.

Brunker also gives us the excellent Sarah Geraghty, a Georgia attorney who fights for parents behind on their support payments.  Geraghty compares imprisonment of the indigent for child support to debtor’s prisons of the 1800s that Dickens described in Little Dorrit.  Of course many of us believed those to have been outlawed long ago, but Geraghty knows better.

“I try very carefully not to exaggerate, but I do think that”s an apt comparison,’ said Sarah Geraghty, the attorney handling the Georgia case for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“And I think anyone who went down and watched one of these proceedings would agree with me. … You see a room full of indigent parents — most of them African-American — and you have a judge and attorney general, both of whom are white. The hearings often take only 15 seconds. The judge asks, ‘Do you have any money to pay?” the person pleads and the judge says, ‘OK you”re going to jail,”‘ she added.

That’s a scene few people envisage when thinking about child support indebtedness and those who go to jail because of it.  The news is full of “deadbeat dads” with plenty of money who don’t pay support because they’re irresponsible.  That’s the narrative we’ve come to accept and there are just enough of those parents to keep the myth alive.  What we never seem to see in the news are the people Geraghty sees every day – the poor who will never have the resources to pay in full and who go to jail because of it.

Those people often don’t have a lawyer to represent them and now, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Rogers, states know they don’t have to provide an attorney for those too poor to hire one themselves.  Up until Turnerwas decided, only six states refused to appoint representation to indigent child support contemnors.  But with state budgets growing ever tighter, it will surprise no one if other states follow suit.  After all, the Supreme Court has told them they don’t need to pay attorneys to represent the poor in child support cases, so why would they?

The Court’s majority opnion in Turnerdemonstrates no comprehension of the everyday realities of the process that Geraghty describes.  According to Justice Breyer who wrote the opinion, it’s acceptable for states to rely on judges to make the type of inquiry necessary to ensure that only those truly able to pay go to jail.  No lawyer is required.  Breyer imagined an in-depth investigation by the judge of a father’s ability to pay, replete with explanations of the man’s rights, etc. 

Breyer should get out more.  The reality that Geraghty sees every day is a 15-second “hearing” that has one goal – to get the case off the court’s docket and the father behind bars.  Not surprisingly, both are accomplished in the blink of an eye.

And that’s one of the most interesting things about Brunker’s article.  Like the contrast between the reality of child support contempt cases versus the one imagined by the Supreme Court majority, Brunker contrasts that reality with what those who support the current system would have us believe.

Compare Geraghty’s statement quoted above with this:

Judge Janice M. Rosa, a supervising court judge in New York”s 8th Judicial District and a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said the system in her state adequately protects non-custodial parents by guaranteeing them a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one and carefully determining that they have the ability to pay.

“No one here is going to jail when a factory closes down and you”re one of hundreds looking for a job,’ she said. “… Every state has said that debtors” prisons are illegal, and you have to give these people a way out. You can only put them in jail if they have money and won”t pay.’

Hmm.  Well, maybe in her court that’s true, but not in the ones Geraghty sees.  But of course Rosa is a judge; what are the chances she’ll admit to ignoring a father’s inability to pay and sending him to jail just to keep the line of cases moving?  My guess is they’re not good.

Even in states that appoint lawyers for indigent parents, those without the ability to pay can still go to jail.

A 2009 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C., found that only half of the child support debtors in California prisons had reported income in the two preceding years. And the median net income of the others was a mere $2,881.

That dovetails with data from the Office of Child Support Enforcement that show that 63% of all child support debtors (not just those in jail) reported yearly income of $10,000 or less.

The same OCSE report excoriates judges for setting child support payments too high in the first place, a practice Geraghty has seen first-hand.

Geraghty, the Southern Center for Human Rights attorney, said part of the problem is that courts often order poor parents to pay too much for child support in the first place, increasing the likelihood that they will fall behind on payments.

“One of my former clients worked at the Piggly Wiggly (supermarket) and they were taking 65 percent of her paycheck,’ she said. “It left her in a position where there was simply no way that she could survive on the amount that she had left.’

And it’s not like the threat of prison has much effect.  Oh, I’m sure it does for those parents who really can pay but don’t.  But those are the exceptions; the rule is otherwise.  As I’ve reported before, every six months, the State of New Jersey conducts a “sweep” of child support debtors.  That is, police and sheriff’s departments get arrest warrants and go out and haul in parents behind on their payments.  Usually they arrest close to 1,000 parents.

But, faced with jail or payment, those parents produce one cent on the dollar owed.  The most recent sweep grossed payments of one percent; the previous one took in 1.1%, strongly suggesting that those arrested simply didn’t have the money to pay.

The entire child support industry is far more complicated than the news would like us to believe.  Thanks to Mike Brunker and MSNBC for doing much to educate the public and dispel the myths.

Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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