Punishing the Poverty Stricken Part Two:

Criminalizing Poor Fathers


In April of 2005, Black motorist Walter Scott was pulled over by a South Carolina policeman for a broken taillight. As he waited for officer Michael Slater to run a warrant check on him, Scott likely fearing that he had a failure to pay child support warrant out on him, tried to flee. Officer Slater responded by firing multiple rounds into Scott’s back resulting in his death.

Going after poor fathers and issuing arrest warrants and imposing jail sentences if they are unable to pay, is a crucial issue in America, and one that has far reaching and sometimes fatal consequences.

Statistics indicate that one in four children have an active child support case in the United States. Court ordered child support totaled over 32 billion dollars in 2013, and unpaid child support is estimated to total 113 billion dollars nationwide.

The child support system, while theoretically established for a necessary and a noble purpose, has failed miserably on several levels. Often an inept child support bureaucracy prevents poor children from receiving the financial and paternal support they need. (There have been cases when fathers paid into the system and the money didn’t reach the children because of administrative problems). And financially

marginalized fathers are stigmatized as dead-beats and penalized in irrational and draconian ways which makes them even less able or inclined to support their children than they were before the intervention of the state.

Dads that are financially secure and refuse to pay money to support their children is one thing; dads that are poverty stricken or underemployed and are unable to reasonably pay, is quite another.

“Billing poor fathers doesn’t help poor mothers and kids become less poor,” said Jacquelyn Boggess of the Center for Family Policy and Practice. And Vicki Turetsky, commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement explained. “Every parent has a responsibility to support their kids to the best of their ability. Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, and not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”

The jailing of fathers who don’t have the ability to pay child support orders; orders that fail to balance the income of the father and allow him a proper defense, is arguably against the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which says that “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Yet fathers in many states throughout America are locked up without having the right of an attorney and without the necessary court proceedings to determine if they are guilty of any offence.

It also hamstrings virtually all the rights guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment. Among them the right to trial by jury, the right to compel the attendance of witnesses, and the right to a competent attorney to plead the defendant’s case.

Advocates of the child support hierarchy say that these Amendments do not apply because they only pertain to criminal offences and, technically, non-payment of child support is a civil affair and not a criminal one. Yet, in practice it has the same effect as a criminal case because it locks up fathers who are indigent or underemployed and does not give them the due process mechanism to defend themselves as the Constitution demands. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to interpret and to apply laws that relate specifically to child support cases where poor fathers are having their freedom arbitrarily taken, being separated from their children, and having their lives short-circuited because they can’t come up with enough cash.

“The problems with the child support system itself are bad enough,” writes Georgetown University professor, Peter Edelman. “But mass incarceration along with its effects on children is even more staggering. One in twenty-eight children has a parent in jail or prison, and one in nine African American children does. The damage that mass incarceration does to children and families goes far beyond the fact that Dad is unable to pay child support while he is in prison. And along with mass incarceration, there are enormous issues of unemployment, low wage jobs, and racism.”

Thus, poverty-stricken fathers who cannot pay are punished (not for being dead-beat dads but) for being members of a powerless underclass. And sadly, not only has the nation’s economic system failed them. The judicial system that is authorized and obligated to interpret and to apply the laws justly and without bias, has also failed them.

Steven Malik Shelton is a Detroit based writer. He can be reached at malikshelton562@gmail.


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