The Unintended Consequences of Child Support Enforcement

Recent headlines were made in Charleston, South Carolina when Mr. Walter L. Scott’s automobile was stopped by a police officer for a traffic infraction, during which Mr. Scott fled on foot, and ultimately was shot in the back several times by the police officer. While the end result of this terrible tragedy was captured on video, leading to the arrest of the police officer, many questioned what led Mr. Scott to flee the officer in the first place.

It was later revealed that Mr. Scott had an outstanding arrest warrant for unpaid child support that had been issued two years prior. In the New York Times article linked below, Frances Robles and Shaila Dewan take an excellent look at how child support enforcement laws nationwide, created in the 80s and 90s during a time in which “deadbeat dads” was a term used to describe fathers who were concerned more about providing for themselves than their children and were considered a scourge on society.

Robles and Dewan describe how collection efforts were ramped up in the late 90s to include automatic paycheck deductions for child support (referred to also as “Income Withholding” in Florida), and also included incarceration where a court found that a parent with a child support obligation holds the ability to pay the child support and has made the decision not to pay. The authors describe that these tactics work terrifically for high-earning individuals with child support obligations, but examine in greater detail these tactics are most often used on low earning individuals.

Robles and Dewan point to a 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in 9 states that showed 70% of child support arrears in those states were owed by individuals who report less than $10,000 in annual income that were expected to pay 83% of their income in child support. Robles and Dewan excellently point out that in many states, including Florida, support orders are not always based on an individual’s income, but rather on “imputed income” which means income a court expects an individual to be earning based on that individual holding a minimum wage, full-time job.

For individuals like Mr. Scott, this expectation to pay such a high percentage of their annual income creates a situation where, unless they pay almost all of their income towards child support and arrears, they will be incarcerated and likely ultimately terminated from any job they held, and the child support debt will continue to accrue while incarcerated, despite no ability for the individual to earn during that time. One can only imagine how this cycle can perpetuate itself to a never-ending debt and incarceration pattern for low income individuals.

Robles and Dewan state that the Obama administration is attempting to change certain child support enforcement rules, including eliminating child support orders based on “imputed income” and instead on “actual income,” and to also prevent child support debt from accruing while an individual is incarcerated.
If you find yourself facing child support issues or you have further questions on this topic, do not hesitate to schedule a consultation with our firm.

Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat” by Frances Robles and Shaila Dewan. April 19th, 2015. New York Times, Page A-http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/20/us/skip-child-support-go-to-jail-lose-job-repeat.html?_r=0

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