[Marxism] Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 20 09:20:40 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 20 2015
Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.
By FRANCES ROBLES and SHAILA DEWAN
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — By his own telling, the first time Walter L.
Scott went to jail for failure to pay child support, it sent his life
into a tailspin.
He lost what he called “the best job I ever had” when he spent two weeks
in jail. Some years he paid. More recently, he had not. Two years ago,
when his debt reached nearly $8,000 and he missed a court date, a
warrant was issued for his arrest. By last month, the amount had more
than doubled, to just over $18,000.
That warrant, his family now speculates, loomed large in Mr. Scott’s
death. On April 4, he was pulled over for a broken taillight, fled on
foot and, after a scuffle with a police officer, was fatally shot in the
The warrant, the threat of another stay behind bars and the potential
loss of yet another job caused him to run, a brother, Rodney Scott, said.
“I think he’s scared to death,” said Karen Sharpe, the mother of Michael
T. Slager, who is charged with murder.After 8 Shots in North Charleston,
Michael Slager Becomes an Officer ScornedAPRIL 12, 2015
“Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail
because he was locked up for child support,” said Mr. Scott, whose
brother was working as a forklift operator when he died. “He got to the
point where he felt like it defeated the purpose.”
Walter Scott’s death has focused attention not just on police violence,
but also on the use of jail to pressure parents to pay child support, a
policy employed by many states today. Though the threat of jail is
considered an effective incentive for people who are able but unwilling
to pay, many critics assert that punitive policies are trapping poor men
in a cycle of debt, unemployment and imprisonment.
The problem begins with child support orders that, at the outset, can
exceed parents’ ability to pay. When parents fall short, the authorities
escalate collection efforts, withholding up to 65 percent of a paycheck,
seizing bank deposits and tax refunds, suspending driver’s licenses and
professional licenses, and then imposing jail time.
“Parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for
child support debt simply because they’re poor,” said Sarah Geraghty, a
lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed a
class-action lawsuit in Georgia on behalf of parents incarcerated
without legal representation for failure to pay. “We see many cases in
which the person is released, they’re given three months to pay a large
amount of money, and then if they can’t do that they’re tossed right
back in the county jail.”
There is no national count of how many parents are incarcerated for
failure to pay child support, and enforcement tactics vary from state to
state, as do policies such as whether parents facing jail are given
court-appointed lawyers. But in 2009, a survey in South Carolina found
that one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child
support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed in 2010. The Record of
Hackensack, N.J., reported last year that 1,800 parents had been jailed
or given ankle monitors in two New Jersey counties in 2013. (The
majority of noncustodial parents nationwide are men.)
Unpaid child support became a big concern in the 1980s and ’90s as
public hostility grew toward the archetypal “deadbeat dad” who lived
comfortably while his children suffered. Child support collections were
so spotty that in the late 1990s, new enforcement tools such as
automatic paycheck deductions were used. As a result, child support
collections increased significantly, and some parents rely heavily on
aggressive enforcement by the authorities.
But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used
against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid
child support is owed by the very poor. A 2007 Urban Institute study of
child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the
arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in
income. They were expected to pay, on average, 83 percent of their
income in child support — a percentage that declined precipitously in
higher income brackets.
In many jurisdictions, support orders are based not on the parent’s
actual income but on “imputed income” — what they would be expected to
earn if they had a full-time, minimum wage or median wage job. In South
Carolina, the unemployment rate for black men is 12 percent.
The Obama administration is trying to change some of these policies,
proposing to rewrite enforcement rules to require that child support
orders be based on actual income and consider the “subsistence needs” of
the noncustodial parent, to bar states from allowing child support debt
to accrue while parents are incarcerated and to finance more job
placement services for them.
“While every parent has a responsibility to support their kids to the
best of their ability, the tools developed in the 1990s are designed for
people who have money,” said Vicki Turetsky, the commissioner of the
federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. “Jail is appropriate for
someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who
couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”
Under a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, courts are not supposed to jail a
defendant without a specific finding that he or she has the ability to
pay. But that process does not always work as intended, especially when
the client does not have a lawyer, advocates for the poor say.
In the Georgia class-action case, the plaintiffs were jailed in civil
contempt-of-court proceedings in which they did not have lawyers. They
included three veterans — one who had paid $75,000 in child support but
fell behind when he lost his civilian job because of combat-related
stress and family deaths; a second who was mentally ill and had a letter
from a Veterans Affairs doctor saying he was unable to work; and a third
who was incarcerated despite having paid $3,796 toward his debt by
working odd jobs.
But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against them, saying they did not
have a categorical right to a lawyer.
Walter Scott had four children, two in the early 1990s outside of
marriage, and two in the late 1990s with a woman to whom he was married.
The marriage crumbled when one of the children was still a toddler, and
Lisa Scott, his estranged wife, began writing letters to family court
asking for help.
“My husband bears no responsibility for his family,” she wrote in 2000.
In an article about a parenting program published in The Post and
Courier of Charleston in 2003, Mr. Scott said that he had fallen behind
when the checks he sent to a state agency for his ex-wife were
mistakenly directed to the mother of his first children. (The South
Carolina Department of Social Services, citing privacy laws, said it
could not verify his account.)
Mr. Scott eventually spent two weeks in jail — a stint that cost him a
$35,000-a-year job at a filmmaking company and sent him into isolation
and alcohol abuse, he told The Post and Courier.
“I got mad at everybody in the whole world because I just lost the best
job I ever had,” he said. “I just stopped doing everything.”
In 2002, Mr. Scott, further behind on his payments, agreed to
participate in a parenting program called Father to Father and pay $350
a month. Mr. Scott reunited with his family, turned himself in for the
unpaid child support and served another five months in jail.
Still, Charleston County Family Court records show that he remained in a
cycle of unpaid child support debt, stints in jail and more threats of
time behind bars. The records also show that when Mr. Scott was working
in 2011, $125.76 was deducted from his check each week. He paid $11,411
that year, which included a lump-sum payment. But he was behind again in
July 2012, and he paid $3,500, his last recorded payment, to avoid jail.
The money came from his parents, Mr. Scott’s brother Rodney said.
Rodney Scott said his brother resented that his ex-wife was not required
to work and that the pressure was always on him to pay support. Critics
of the child support system say this imbalance is reflected in rules
that say that if a mother receives public assistance, the father must
pay it back, even if he is also poor. In many cases, though not in Mr.
Scott’s, child support actions are brought by state officials seeking
Lisa Scott could not be reached at addresses or phone numbers listed in
her name. Samantha Scott, a daughter from Mr. Scott’s first
relationship, said she had never heard her own mother complain about a
lack of support. “If he had money, he would give it to us,” she said.
Ms. Turetsky, the head of the federal child support office, said the
system should be based on the expectation that both parents would
contribute toward their children’s needs. “It’s nuts,” she said of the
policy of making destitute fathers repay welfare. “She gets the
assistance; he gets charged with the bill.”
Jahmal Holmes, 28, is a current participant in the Father to Father
program in North Charleston. He has two children, 4 and 8, and said he
had agreed to court-ordered child support because he had been told that
it was a requirement for their mother to receive Medicaid. The two have
since broken up and share custody of the younger child, but he is still
required to pay support for both.
Mr. Holmes said he did not realize that if he fell behind on payments,
he would face jail. “I am behind now, and they are threatening to
suspend my driver’s license — and I’m a truck driver,” he said. “When I
saw that Walter Scott died, and he was in this program, that touched me
emotionally. I see myself trying to get out of that situation.”
Rodney Scott said that he sometimes thought his brother did not do
everything he could to catch up, but that Walter seemed to consider it a
hopeless cause. He recalled seeing his brother plead to a judge that he
just did not make enough money.
“He asked the judge, ‘How am I supposed to live?’ ” Mr. Scott said. “And
the judge said something like, ‘That’s your problem. You figure it out.’ ”
Frances Robles reported from North Charleston, and Shaila Dewan from New
York. Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting from Charleston, S.C.
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