Should parents be jailed for failing to pay child support?


Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.

What was striking to me about the recent shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., wasn't that another unarmed black man was killed by police. It was what his family said after, that Scott, stopped for driving with a broken taillight, ran from the officer because he was behind on child support payments.

“He had back child support, and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support,” family attorney Chris Stewart told reporters.

The 50-year-old father of four, buried a week ago, had a bench warrant out for his arrest for not paying more than $18,000 in back child support.

I’ve watched this scenario play out on both sides. On one, I’ve had a sister struggle because child support payments didn’t come. And on the other, I’ve had a brother struggle to make the payments.

They tell me it’s a terrible place to be, but putting a parent in jail and having arrears build up to a point where they can’t possibly pay just doesn’t make much sense to me. In fact, it seems counterproductive. Not only is it harder for someone to get a job when they leave prison, it’s a whole lot harder to make regular payments.

That debt in Georgia and in many other states, where there is no statute of limitations, never expires, and neither does the time to sue, said Randall Kessler, a local family law expert and author of "Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids and Your Future"

The takeaway? The threat of jail is real and seemingly everlasting.

Kessler said that most judges will consider incarceration of someone who owes child support, in part because history in their courtroom shows that when people are sent to jail or threatened with jail, they often pay. In other words, it fleshes out those who can’t pay from those who merely say they can’t pay, but really can.

“Many people, men in particular, live their entire lives with a child support arrearage,” Kessler said. “It often gets too great to face. So instead of paying a lawyer to seek a reduction, they use what little money they have to pay support, but the unpaid amount remains owed and collectible.”

And legislators, he said, rarely vote against any new law that makes it easier to collect payment. If they aren’t sending them to jail, there are laws in many states authorizing courts to invalidate driver’s licenses, hunting licenses, pilot’s licenses.

Right now, there are 288,767 active child support cases with arrears in Georgia, Ravae Graham, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Division of Child Support Services, told me. Of those, about 90 percent are dads and the other 10 percent are moms.

There are no national statistics on rates of incarceration for failure to pay child support. Georgia, however, is one of just five states, along with South Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Maine, that do not guarantee the right to an attorney during child support contempt hearings, according to a survey conducted by the National Child Support Enforcement Association. A 2009 study found that in one county jail in Georgia, nearly a third of the inmates were behind bars solely for child court contempt.

Chris Ussery knows how easy it is to fall behind. Ussery, 28, has never been arrested, but he’s come awfully close.

When he divorced in 2009, Ussery said he was ordered to pay $1,589 a month for his two children. That worked well until he left the Marines and found himself caught in one dead-end minimum wage job after the other.

“I couldn’t pay it,” he said. “I remember one week making $58 and I gave $50 of that to my ex.”

By 2012, Ussery said he owed $30,000. That same year, he got a subpoena to appear in court.

That's when he found out about the DCSS Community Outreach Programs. Under the program, Ussery enrolled in a CDL class at Bainbridge State University and is now driving a truck. Monthly support payments of $550 are taken from his paycheck.

“I feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulder,” said Ussery, who now lives in Dothan, Ala. “I finally have peace of mind. I don’t have to walk around on eggshells when I see my kids.”

For whatever reason, not everyone has taken advantage of the programs.

But here’s the thing I find striking about Ussery, Walter Scott and even my brother. They love their children. Scott’s brother Anthony described him as kind and said, “He was a great father.”

That might sound like a contradiction to most of us. Most of us wouldn’t equate being in arrears with being loving. In many cases, however, once a parent has fallen into arrears, it can be next to impossible to climb out.

Kessler said the problem arises when a payer loses their job, but does not then ask the court to reduce the obligation. They hope the recipient is understanding, but sometimes, often years later, the recipient seeks the full amount, and it remains due.

“By then the unpaid amount might be a hundred thousand dollars or more,” he said. “And the stories abound of men who have tried to pay what they could still being incarcerated because the judge did not believe they were paying as much as they could. That scares a lot of men and women who owe child support.”

What children need is not more laws or rhetoric; they need their parents in their lives. It looks like the DCSS program is one way to make that happen.