This article is about as good as it gets on child support (St. Louis Public Radio, 8/15/18). It’s a conversation with two St. Louis attorneys, Stephanie Lummus and Michael-John Voss, both of whom do their best to defend non-custodial parents behind on their child support. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the everyday realities of those parents and the child support system.
When Stephanie Lummus first entered nonprofit legal work, she didn’t expect that her efforts to represent homeless people and help them exit poverty would so often revolve around child support. But she estimates that at least three-quarters of her homeless clients are dealing with that issue – and it’s not a simple one.
Isn’t that interesting? Some 75 percent of Lummus’ homeless clients have problems with paying child support. That reminds me of the Office of Child Support Enforcement’s data showing 63 percent of parents in arrears on child support report earning under $10,000 per year. How many of her clients were actually put on the street in the first place by family courts and their child support and alimony orders?
“The enforcement mechanisms in place in the state of Missouri for those folks that have resources and just don’t feel like supporting their children are usually appropriate … [but] what we’re talking about is the vulnerable and the disenfranchised,” Lummus said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, “the folks that have run into difficulty or catastrophe in life and need modification, and they can’t get it.”
Right again. Child support enforcement assumes, as Lummus says, that every father who doesn’t pay can pay, but simply refuses to. The laws on child support enforcement were born in an era that assumed that dads were deadbeats, so the most draconian measures were appropriate to force him to pay. After all, he could pay, right? If Dad didn’t pay, slap a 10% or 12% interest charge on what he owed. If he still didn’t pay, take away his driver’s license. And if he still didn’t pay, toss him in the slammer. All of those might make sense for someone who has the money to support his kids but simply refuses.
But that doesn’t describe most parents who fall behind. Overwhelmingly they don’t pay because they don’t have the money. And of course, if they don’t have the, say, $200 per month to support the child, they also don’t have the $5,000 to pay a lawyer to get them a modification, so the arrears just go up and up indefinitely.
“…So if you can, as a low-income person or someone who is vulnerable, figure that system out, then you’re fine. But most of my clients – they can’t even begin to understand. They’re trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from.”
Failing to understand the court system or what evidence a hostile judge might consider sufficient to prove one’s inability to pay typically means the loss of a license, even steeper child support payments and possibly jail, all of which make keeping up even harder or impossible.
Meanwhile, Michael-John Voss added this:
“We’ve criminalized poverty in the United States in various forms, and one of the main ways that we’ve done that is through child support,” he said.
Indeed. City after city is now making it a crime to sleep on the street, in a public park, etc. Where homeless people are supposed to go given the lack of housing for them is anyone’s guess, but municipal governments want their cities to be attractive and that means getting the homeless out of sight.
And of course Voss is correct to connect the criminalization of poverty with child support. Child support orders are routinely set at levels the parent can’t pay, modifications are hard-to-impossible to come by and interest ratchets up the arrears. Loss of licenses and time in jail only make matters worse. For many non-custodial parents, falling behind and ultimately going to jail are inevitable outcomes.
He explained that after 12 months of missed payments or $5,000 owed, the noncustodial parent then faces a felony charge.
“Then they’re looking at jail time and incarceration,” Voss said, “so what you’ve done is instead of helping somebody make those payments and care for the child, you’ve removed them. You’ve – one – suspended their license, and – two – locked them up in prison because of their inability to pay.”
Naturally, making failure to pay a felony deals a crushing blow to whatever chance an already poverty-stricken parent has of finding a job.
“And what [state attorneys] usually request is that you pay the current plus some of the arrears. So if your current [payment], say, is $200 a month, and you’ve got $10,000, $12,000 in arrears, maybe more, they add another $150 on that. So you couldn’t pay the $200 to begin with – and now they want you to pay $350? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what they require, and that’s what the state looks for when they prosecute these cases.”
One alternative is impossible for the parent and the other is a felony conviction and jail time. This is how we think we’ll get the poor to support their kids. Really, I’m not making this up.
And let’s not forget that, when the money is paid, often enough, the child doesn’t see a dime of it.
Voss noted that while some custodial parents work with the respective noncustodial parent to figure out a workable repayment strategy, it’s often a more complex problem.
“If the child’s ever received state benefits, some of those arrears are assigned to the state,” he said. “So no matter whether or not the custodial parent or former custodial parent wants to forgive and forget, if the state is entitled to those arrears, they’re going to come after them.”