Op-Ed: Dads with child support debt should not be imprisoned — especially on Father’s Day

A list of names of child support violators in Tallahassee, Fla.
(Mark Foley / Associated Press)

For the roughly 17 million kids who do not live with their dads, Father’s Day is one of the most anticipated days of the year. In many cases, it’s the rare occasion when dads turn up to celebrate with their kids.

But one group of dads does so at great peril: fathers with child support debt. That’s because many sheriff’s departments across the country take the opportunity to conduct what they call “deadbeat raids” or “man up and pay roundups.” These raids happen year-round, with a 2017 raid in New Jersey netting 1,600 fathers. But Father’s Day is a preferred round-up day, since many men who are otherwise out of the picture surface for their kids.

Ronnie Jones, a father of three in Miami, knows all about Father’s Day raids. He was picked up at a family barbecue five years ago. “It was like the cops came right to our street, looking for us with warrants,” Jones remembered recently. The police found him, handcuffed him and took him to jail. His kids watched it all happen.


That Father’s Day lock up, followed by two more, caused Jones to lose his housing. Now homeless, he lives in a shelter close to his kids so that he can help their mother take them to school every day. But they won’t be seeing him this Father’s Day. He’s learned to lay low.

There are many men like Jones. I’ve interviewed and observed hundreds of them in courts across the country, documenting the causes and consequences of a large increase in child support debt.

Many sheriff’s departments across the country take the opportunity to conduct what they call ‘deadbeat raids’ or ‘man up and pay roundups.’

Since 1986, this debt has increased by 1,000%, reaching $114.6 billion last year. That’s more than the federal government’s expenditures on public assistance and food stamps combined. Of child support debtors, 52% do not owe money to a custodial parent. Rather, they owe the state as payback for public assistance, foster care or Medicaid. In California, 73% of debt is owed to the state.

As this debt has grown, the criminal justice and child support systems have merged to criminalize it. Some 15% of all African American fathers have done jail time for nonpayment. In some states, child support debtors make up 20% of the jail population. City jails designate cellblocks for these debtors at enormous expense. A 90-day child support sentence in California costs the state $18,000, which is more than many fathers’ debt.

Often these fathers are dehumanized in the process. I’ve heard judges call them losers, liars and scumbags — humiliating them to make them pay up. The overwhelming majority can’t: 70% of child support debt is owed by fathers who make less than $10,000 a year. While some may be deadbeats, most are simply dead broke. Jail time derails their efforts to change, leading to job loss, parole violations, eviction and depression. It can also cause fathers to disconnect from helpful family networks.


Why do fathers become indebted in the first place? Poverty and joblessness play key roles, but so does incarceration itself. Serving time in prison causes someone’s debt to soar. Half of the 2.3 million people in prison are parents, and half of those have open child support orders. Since few incarcerated fathers can work for real wages, these orders go unpaid. States can and do charge interest on the accrued debt. (California charges 10%.) The 1986 Bradley Amendment bars the retroactive reduction of such debt.

For decades, many states forbade changes to child support orders for incarcerated parents. Although a 2016 executive order requires states to consider changes for prisoners, most leave modifications to the court’s discretion. So a small minority of prisoners get their orders modified — and the majority’s unpaid orders pile up and spiral into excessive debt. The fathers I researched owed an average of $36,500 in child support upon release.

For newly released fathers — who already have a criminal record limiting their employability — this debt comes with enforcement measures, such as driver’s license revocation, asset liens, bank account seizures and credit reporting. All of which create feedback loops of disadvantage that too often lead these dads back to jail.

There are ways out of this. First, child support and criminal justice should be separated from one another and debt decriminalized. This could happen at the state level.

States can also guarantee $0 support orders for the incarcerated, as California has done. They can forgo charging interest on support debt, as New Jersey has done. They can limit custodial sanctions. And they can create programs, such as public works projects or child care credits, to help fathers repay their debt in ways that help everyone.

At the federal level, reforming the Bradley Amendment would allow more comprehensive debt reduction for inmates. Mandatory welfare payback policies should also be reformed, since they’ve led to more debt, less taxpayer payback and thus higher state expenditures on enforcement and incarceration. Federal restrictions on the use of custodial sentences for debt should apply to child support debt, so that we no longer have debtors’ prisons for parents.


No one questions the importance of child support. Mothers and children need it. But they won’t get it if we continue to saddle men with debt and incarcerate them as punishment. Children also need their fathers’ love, care and attention. They won’t get that, either, if their fathers are too fearful to come out and see them.

Lynne Haney is a professor of sociology at New York University and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.

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