Too many people are being incarcerated and ordered to pay large fines for being delinquent on child-support payments. It’s a counter-productive way to deal with the problem.
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.
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.
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.
State law requires women to provide the names of the father(s) of their children and pursue child-support payments in order to receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This is the only reason some women disclose the identity of these men.
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.
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.
Brenda C. Williams, M.D.