Custodial fathers are rare in the United States. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 13.7 million parents had custody of 22 million children under the age of 21, while the other parent lived somewhere else. About one in six of these parents are fathers, the majority (56.2%) are divorced or separated, while 24.5% were re-married or widowed, and 20.3% had never been married.
As for the other five of six fathers, they have to pay child support, which is fair. The problem, though, is the fact that most of these dads are broke and can’t afford to pay as much as they’re supposed to, which is why many are calling for child support reforms.
According to the Office of Child Support Enforcement, 70% of unpaid child support debt is owed by parents who either have no or low reported earnings. Consequently, the punitive system in place throws them in jail, like a quasi-modern debtor’s prison.
The vicious cycle begins with court orders requiring the non-custodial parent to pay an amount of child support they cannot afford. While in court, the parent has the chance to explain to a judge his or her respective financial situation, but in many states, it’s ultimately up to the judge whether he or she believes the parents. The judge then hands down what they think is a fair amount of child support, which may have been decided without any regard to what the parent explained. The parent cannot then pay this amount, and fall into an incomprehensible amount of debt.
Then, authorities withhold 65% of the non-custodial parent’s paycheck, seize bank accounts, and tax refunds, suspend driver and professional licenses, and possibly impose jail time.
“Parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for child support debt simply because they’re poor,” said attorney Sarah Geraghty of the the Southern Center for Human Rights. “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.”