Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 6.2 Child Support Payments


Child support demands present major difficulties to incarcerated and reentering fathers. A study of inmates in Massachusetts found that 22% of inmates under Department of Correction (DOC) jurisdiction were part of the child support caseload; a Colorado study found that 26% of inmates in state prison facilities and 28% of parolees were involved with the child support system. (Griswold & Pearson, 2003). Incarcerated fathers often enter prison with child support debt. Child support obligations continue when fathers become incarcerated, but it is usually impossible for inmates to meet their child support obligations. Child support order amounts are based on the earnings of parents at the time of the order, and most inmates earn little or no income. For instance, inmates in Massachusetts may earn as little as $1 per day, and inmates in Colorado earn between 25¢ and $2.50 per day (Griswold & Pearson, 2003). These factors combine to leave fathers with large amounts of child support debt owed upon release from prison. Analyses of child support profiles in Massachusetts indicated that released prisoners owe an average of over $16,000 in child support debt, including both pre- and during-prison nonpayments; increases in debt during incarceration averaged over $5,000 (Griswold & Pearson, 2003). One of the parolees in a Utah study accrued $30,000 in back support debt (Bahr et al., 2005). Child support debt is compounded by other debts commonly imposed upon incarcerated fathers, including punitive fines, restitution payments, and judicial system cost-recovery assessments (Levingston & Turetsky, 2007).

Men released from prison in Massachusetts owe an average of $16,000 in child support debt.

As child support debt continues to accumulate upon release from prison, limited skills, along with a record of incarceration, can make finding employment difficult (Bahr et al., 2005; Festen et al., 2002; Hairston, 2001). Child support demands may lead to recidivism if fathers are unable to find legal sources of income (Festen et al., 2002; Griswold & Pearson, 2003; Hairston, 2001). At the same time, nonpayment of child support may lead to re-arrest and reincarceration (Festen et al., 2002; Hairston, 2001; Travis et al., 2003). Difficulties paying child support can also impede father-child relationships by causing tension between fathers and their children’s caregivers, to whom they owe the money (Hairston, 2001; Travis et al., 2003), or by presenting legal barriers to fathers’ contact with their children (Brenner, 1999).

The problems encountered by incarcerated and reentering fathers regarding issues of child support have prompted some states to implement laws, policies, and programs that help to reduce incarcerated fathers’ payment obligations or to increase fathers’ abilities to pay, and have led researchers to call for better integration between corrections and child support enforcement systems (Griswold & Pearson, 2003, OCSE, 2006).  Child support agencies have also been experimenting with special projects to address these issues (OCSE, 2006). In addition, Levingston & Turetsky (2007) propose identifying outstanding debt and financial obligations as part of the prison intake process; offering debt management and repayment assistance to fathers after release; and giving higher priority to payment of reasonable child support obligations to families than to obligations such as state judicial system cost recovery.

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