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Do poor fathers deserve debtors' prison?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 29, 2003

Last Thursday, September 25, 16 fathers began a hunger strike to draw media attention to issues like the imprisonment of "deadbeat dads."

The group, Hunger Strike for Justice, estimates the total number of fathers incarcerated in the U.S. for failure to pay child support is 250,000.

This estimate seems high given that the entire prison population is somewhat over two million, but it is difficult to argue because no official statistics exist.

A more useful question to ask, however, is: What does throwing a "deadbeat dad" in jail accomplish?

That’s the question recently asked by a Texas judge who recommended releasing from jail 112 men who were behind county bars because they hadn't paid child support. (No women were imprisoned on the charge.) The judge doubted the wisdom of throwing non-violent parents into a badly overcrowded jail system because they were in debt. After all, there is no statistical proof that imprisonment motivates a father who can pay court-ordered child support to do so; imprisonment prevents those unable to pay from earning money.

The deadbeat dad stereotype is of a father who abandons his children and willfully refuses to pay for their support. He has become a cultural villain on par with other "D-Ds": the drunk driver and the drug dealer. That stereotype is at the center of an emerging debate over whether delinquent fathers should be incarcerated.

A point on which both sides agree: Children are being deprived of financial support, and that should be corrected. One side -- consisting largely of those who enforce or benefit from current policies -- wishes to track down and imprison fathers who owe money. The other side -- consisting largely of father's rights advocates -- calls for an overhaul of current child support policies, claiming they are unjust and unworkable for both fathers and children.

Advocates of imprisonment wield the force of law. In cities and counties across North America, delinquent fathers are going to jail.

For example, deadbeat "parents" (read men) in Central Texas were warned last week: pay up or else. The "or else" is a threat of six months in jail. At the same moment, the federal government announced a nationwide crackdown, coordinated by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

The possible extent of such crackdowns can be gauged from a statement made by Larry McKeown, director of South Carolina's Child Support Enforcement. He claims that South Carolina alone is pursuing collection from an astounding 225,000 delinquent parents.

Again, the argument is that deadbeat dads are able to pay and simply require the threat of jail to do so. Although it is not supported by statistical research, the argument may be true in some cases. But the opposite is probably more common.

"Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths" (1998) remains the most extensive federally funded study on divorced fathers. Conducted by Dr. Sanford Braver of Arizona State University, it found that the stereotypical deadbeat dad "does not exist in significant numbers." Many if not most of delinquent fathers are unable to pay their child support, especially when it is coupled with steep interest charges for falling behind.

The questions surrounding imprisonment are complicated by an extraordinary lack of hard data on even the most basic facts; for example, the number of delinquent fathers in jail is unknown. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics broadly categorizes crimes as "Violent, Property, Drug, or Public Order.")

In the absence of such data, father's rights advocates tend to focus on personal stories and the deeper problems underlying the concept of "deadbeat dad."

The personal stories can be heartbreaking, such as those told in the suicide notes of fathers left without a means of supporting themselves. Other stories are infuriating, like that of Bobby Sherrill. Working in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Sherrill was taken hostage. Upon his release and return to America, he was arrested for failure to make support payments while captive.

The underlying problems to which father's rights advocates point include:

Child support cannot be reasonably altered. For example, the Bradley Amendment forbids a judge from retroactively reducing or forgiving child support due to changed circumstances, such as unemployment or illness. (This amendment led to Sherrill's arrest.)

The current child support system is a "gravy train" for state and local agencies, judges and attorneys, social workers, private collection agencies, child-support professionals ... none of whom have a vested interest in reducing bureaucracy or listening to fathers' complaints.

Payments should be linked to a non-abusive father's right to see his children, a right that is often de facto denied. According to a 1999 U.S. Census Bureau report, when joint custody or visitation rights were present, the non-custodial parent paid at least some support in 78.7 percent of cases. Without joint custody or visitation, the percentage fell to 46.1.

Current policies violate the right to due process. They also violate many state constitutions. For example, judges in both Georgia and Tennessee have ruled their own state's child support guidelines to be unconstitutional.

A mountain of objections could be added.

With a social problem weak on statistics, strong on devastating personal tragedy and rife with systemic problems such as those listed above, last week’s Hunger Strike for Justice is right about one thing: the media should be paying attention.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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