Fathers Behind Bars: Rethinking Child Support Policy Toward Low-Income Noncustodial Fathers and Their Families
Tonya L. Brito
University of Wisconsin Law School; Institute for Legal Studies; Institute for Research on Poverty
October 9, 2013
15 Iowa Journal of Gender, Race & Justice 417 (2012)
Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1234
Since September 2005, Michael Turner has been incarcerated on six different occasions for nonpayment of child support.1 His prison terms total over three years in jail. He currently owes over $20,000 in unpaid child support, and while he remains in prison on his current sentence, he will accumulate even more debt that he is unable to pay. After his release, South Carolina's automated case processing machinery will issue another order to show cause. Turner's experience with the child support system is all too common. Other poor noncustodial fathers report similar dystopian experiences. Across the United States,destitute noncustodial parents are incarcerated for failing to meet child support obligations they have no means to pay. The end result is that indigent child support debtors fill jails across the country. Although child support law and policy is targeted at so-called "deadbeat dads" who have the ability to pay but choose not to pay, the prison door continues to revolve for poor noncustodial fathers who are unable to pay. This Article highlights Michael Turner's experience with the child support system to illuminate the experience of thousands of poor fathers exactly like him. It explores the systemic policies and practices of the child support system that operate to create a revolving prison door for no- and low-income fathers who are under an order of child support. It also reviews the empirical evidence regarding the economic status and employment capabilities of disadvantaged fathers. It further chronicles their experience with the child support system, from the establishment of unrealistically high child support orders to the accumulation of onerous arrearages and ultimately, the application of punitive and unwarranted enforcement measures (including imprisonment). In concluding, the Article argues that this approach to secure child support payments from disadvantaged noncustodial fathers has not only been largely ineffective but has also produced unintended consequences that run counter to the goal of improving the economic well-being of poor children. The Article proposes a novel approach to child support enforcement in poor families. It contemplates a change in program priorities such that the goal of providing economic support to poor children is made paramount, even if this shift is made at the expense of pursuing the dual (and often conflicting) goal of welfare cost recoupment. With this enhanced commitment to children's economic needs in mind, the Article presents a multi-pronged alternative scheme for child support.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 58
Keywords: family law, child support, poverty (or poverty law), welfare, gender inequality, justice, law reform
Date posted: October 11, 2013
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