The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published a story detailing the ruthless and counterproductive way in which the Montgomery County sheriff’s department utilizes midnight raids and debtor’s prisons to target fathers with outstanding child support debt.
The article details how in Montgomery and other Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties, deputies conduct monthly overnight sweeps to capture parents who failed to pay child support, appear for court hearings, or both. Their names are then published in local newspapers and their arrests often aired on local newscasts. Although some are released the next day, others are held in jail for weeks or months at a time.
The purpose of the raids, which often are publicized on Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, or back-to-school time, is to coerce payments. Nationwide, overdue child support debt has swelled by 1,000 percent since 1986 to a collective $114 billion, according to the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement. Officials insist that collecting payments is imperative so supporting the healthy upbringing of children.
Criminalizing Child Support
With that motive in mind, there has been a trend toward the criminalization of parents who fail to make their payments. A recent analysis published by the sociology journal Socius, found 14 percent of parents who owe child support end up in jail by the time their kids turn 9.
Everyone agrees that providing financial support for the upbringing of healthy children is critically important, but data suggests enforcement methods, such as these late-night raids, are entirely ineffective at reducing the amount of child support debt owed.
According to the article, five large sweeps of 1,567 people across New Jersey who owed $35 million in 2016 and 2017 brought in just $218 per person – just 1 percent of what is owed.
These methods fail because the reason many of these parents fail to make their child support payments is because they simply cannot afford them. The article cites a 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in Pennsylvania and eight other states that found 70 percent of all arrears were owed by people who reported an income of $10,000 or less annually.
Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found some of the most economically disadvantaged fathers still did what they could to provide in-kind support, such as baby products, clothing, and food.
System Of Debtors’ Prisons
The problem with targeting parents for child support payments they cannot afford, is that it creates a system of debtors’ prisons. Getting arrested can cause some men to lose their jobs, and since the process for modifying child support is complicated, that can lead to more debt. The situation can quickly snowball, and suddenly there is seemingly no way out. Research shows that fathers see their kids less often if they owe child support, so rather than keeping the best interests of children in mind, the system is splitting them apart.
The assumption that men are primarily the ones skimping on child support is indicative of the pervasive gender stereotypes that are so ingrained in family law matter. While much ground has been made the past several decades in terms of gender equality, fathers’ rights have become an often overlooked issue.
“This is a civil rights issue,” said Cordell & Cordell Co-Founder and Principal Partner Joe Cordell in the recently-released book by Andrew L. Yarrow, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.” “What civil right is more important than the role that a parent plays in a child’s life? But this civil right is the dark corner of the room. It’s an orphan. Most people are not particularly disturbed by it. There are no powerful voices.”