May 13, 2015
By Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Two years ago, the National Parents Organization’s Ned Holstein reported the shocking news that, in Massachusetts, non-custodial fathers who are behind on their child support payments are eight times as likely to be sent to jail as non-custodial mothers in arrears. That information came to NPO courtesy of the yeoman work of Terry Brennan who dogged the sheriff’s departments of all Bay State counties for their data on child support enforcement. The results were astonishing: between 95% and 98.5% of those incarcerated in every county were fathers.
U.S. Census Bureau figures on child support payment demonstrate that mothers with child support arrears are incarcerated at approximately one-eighth of the rate that would be justified by their numbers if fathers and mothers in arrears were treated equally. Mothers in arrears are incarcerated at lower rates even though they have higher rates of incomplete payment, pay a smaller percentage of their child support order, and have larger arrears than fathers. In the absence of other explanations, these data suggest that gender bias against fathers plays a large role in family court-ordered incarcerations.
Brennan has now contacted Vicki Turetsky, Commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to inform her of the sexism in Massachusetts child support enforcement efforts. In an email to Brennan, Turetsky has promised to raise the matter with enforcement authorities in the state.
This all comes against a backdrop of Turetsky’s move to reform the regulations on all aspects of child support, including how it’s ordered and enforcement mechanisms. The OCSE called for public comment on those issues late last year and the National Parents Organization took the lead in arguing for constructive change that would make orders more reasonable and enforcement less draconian. Over 1,000 NPO members submitted comments to the OCSE on their proposed rules, swamping them with more public comments than they have ever received in the past. The results of those efforts should be known this summer.
Turetsky has long been an opponent of incarceration as a means of enforcing payment of child support. As the OCSE has acknowledged and studies demonstrate, incarceration is ineffective at increasing levels of child support compliance. That’s true largely because those who are in arrears are those who can’t pay what they owe, i.e. the poor and those whose orders were originally set too high for them to afford.
Of course the theory behind incarceration is that only those who can pay but don’t are sent to jail. But one look at attorney Sarah Geraghty’s description of enforcement proceedings in court shows that to be only a theory. In fact, child support cases are processed in assembly-line fashion with hearings lasting as little as five minutes. Defendants are mostly poor and minority fathers with no attorney to represent them. Unsurprisingly, many parents who don’t have the money to pay are nevertheless sent to jail.
Now we know that Massachusetts courts fail to apply gender-neutral decision-making to those litigants. That adds still greater support to Commissioner Turetsky’s efforts to reform the child support enforcement process. Kudos to her for taking up this cause. And Kudos to Brennan for not allowing this vital issue to fade from public awareness.