Kenya N. Rahmaan With the recent murder of South Carolina father, Walter Scott, who ran from the police because he had a warrant for failing to pay child support, The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement Agency (OCSE) is trying to do damage control. The office has released its March/April Newsletter comprising articles discussing child support enforcement and incarcerated parents. Nothing in the articles will be able to pacify advocates of child support reform even though there are great details describing the relationships between the prisons administrators and child support enforcement agencies across the country. The newsletter showcased states that allegedly offer assistance to incarcerated parents but fails to even mention possibly abolishing the laws that actually sentence parents to prison because they owe child support in the first place. According to OCSE (2015), one in two state prisoners are parents. Instead of eliminating jail as a punishment for parents, states such as Indiana, offer information as a viable resource for incarcerated parents.
The goal of the different agencies when implementing such programs is to help parents incarcerated in state prison facilities navigate the child support system and understand their rights and responsibilities, (OCSE, 2015). Information can be an important tool when one’s freedom is not being threatened. However, children and parents could be better served by our government agencies when dealing with child support issues if tangible changes were made in order to, not only eliminate prison as a punishment for owing child support debt, but ensure that 100% of the child support payment reaches the children. Currently, Indiana retains all of the received child support payment in cases where the family receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.
Not to mention, a parent that is convicted of nonsupport of a child can be found guilty of a Class D or Class C felony. A Class D felony conviction can carry a three year sentence while the C felony can mean that a parent spends eight years behind bars. The fines, if convicted, will add at least $10,000 to child support arrears which will continue to accumulate during incarceration. Indiana parents do not need information more than they need to be excused from the debt that quickly adds up while incarcerated accompanied with the elimination of the threat of being arrested once freed from prison.
The Child Support Report (2015) shares that after release, many owe an average of $23 thousand or more in child support. Much of this debt is the result of interest, penalties, and fees that build during imprisonment. Some parents may consider themselves lucky if they live in the state of Kansas and only owe $23,000 in child support debt upon release. This is because, according to the National Conference of State Legislators or NCSL (2013).
Kansas can fine its parents who fail to pay support $100,000 and jail them for seven months if convicted. The state offers a couple of programs that may reduce state-owed arrears, but the amount excused is only a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the average debt owed by newly released prisoners. Obligors can receive an adjustment of up to $2,000 on state owed arrears if they complete approved courses in prison, (OCSE, 2015). This amount will do very little to decrease the amount of arrears for most imprisoned parents in the state.
In 2013, $669,234,974 was the total amount of arrears owed in Kansas (NCSL, 2014). This astronomical amount can be attributed to the 8% interest that the state charges on late payments. The arrears reducing programs offers minimal benefits to incarceration and newly released parents. When the money for child support is collected, the excessive amount of arrears will always decrease the amount of money that will actually be paid directly to the children.
Arizona is a state that focuses on education as a means to reduce arrears for incarcerated parents. A group of agencies including, The Arizona’s Division of Child Support Services, have created a program which promotes three specific aspects of debt forgiveness. The program, according to OCSE (2015), created a concept of a three pronged arrears program which consists of
- a hardship forgiveness program,
- a consistent payer program,
- and a Personal Development Initiatives program.
The idea of assisting parents with such programs may be a soothing solution for the heads of office that want to appease people that do not agree with the child support system. However, this plan may backfire. The amount of money that may be forgiven is not a significant amount when viewing the big picture of allegedly child support debt owed by parents. For example, when a parent completes the GED program, they can apply for a reduction of arrears. Unfortunately, debt forgiveness is not automatic.
According to the OCSE (2015), the child support office encourages noncustodial parents to complete a GED program so that they can apply for a $1,000 waiver of state assigned arrears. It would be more beneficial to parents and children if there were other opportunities offered after program completion, as well as guaranteed debt forgiveness. A thousand dollars could be quite significant for a noncustodial parent if he or she only owed a thousand dollars in arrears. That is not the case in many situations. As of 2013, the state of Arizona reported a total of $1,737,681,855 and there was only $402,671,342 owed in current support, (NCSL, 2014). These programs offer no substantial assistance to parents as they face reentry barriers after being released from prison.
The OCSE newsletter continues to describe a few other programs that are supposed to help incarcerated parents with maintaining and paying child support debt upon release. The best solution for these parents is to have zero child support debt owed upon release from prison. The punishment of imprisonment for parents that owe child support debt should be abolished as it seems to lend only a minimal deterrent to parents. This especially when they are simply unable to afford the payment.
One of the major misconceptions of the child support program in TANF cases is that the child support is supposed to repay the case award distributed to the low-income family. This award is a grant and not a loan. This means that this money is not supposed to be repaid to the government. This money has already been paid for through taxes. Adding the interest, penalties, and fines on money that is technically not a loan is even more criminal than incarcerating poor people because they cannot afford to pay a debt.
In this quest for child support reform, we must first rid parents of the threat of imprisonment as a punishment for failing to pay child support debt. Parents, like Walter Scott, should not be jailed because they struggle to pay their bills. And no person, parent or not, should be gunned down in the back while fleeing possible arrest for owing any type of debt in the United States. This is 2015, we should start living in the present instead of reenacting the debtors’ prisons and similar punishments of the past.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2013, January). Criminal nonsupport and child support. Retrieved from www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/criminal-nonsupport-and-child-support.aspx
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2014, May 20). 2013 State by state data on child support collections. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/2013-state-by-state-data-on-child-support-collections.aspx
Office of Child Support Enforcement. (2015). Child support report (47-3). Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/programs/css/march_april_2015_child_support_report.pdf