Feature: Parenting

Parents Unable to Pay Child Support Face Jail Time

Author: Isabel McFadden
Published: September 15, 2011 at 5:45 am

Go to jail for not paying your bills?

Well, not quite. In most states, deadbeat parents, parents who repeatedly fail to pay their child support, can be  jailed under a civil process. This means all it takes is a judge, no jury, to determine that the parent is willfully violating a court order and should join the ranks of thousands of parents ending up behind bars each year. 

In most cases, jailed parents who   were withholding child support out of sheer spite end up paying.  But now, critics of the process claim that it unfairly penalizes poor parents who lack the means to pay child support and can't afford an attorney to represent them in court. 

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that indigent parents are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney even when facing the possibility of jail time. The case, Turner v. Rogers, involved a South Carolina man who was repeatedly jailed for his failure to pay child support.

Rather than a court-appointed lawyer,  the justices ruled, states should use “substantial procedural safeguards” to make certain that those who are unable to pay are not the ones being locked up. 

While disappointed with the ruling, some critics of jail time for delinquent parents hope it will lead states to form better guidelines and improve their systems. Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit filed in Georgia in March, is seeking to force the state to provide attorneys for parents facing jail time due to failure to pay child support. According to the suit, "parents too poor" to meet their obligations are being jailed without counsel in violation of both state and federal constitutional rights. 

Adding insult to injury for poor parents is the presumption that they are "unwilling" to meet their obligations  and should thus be sent to jail. Many of these parents have been out of work long term and some were making their payments when they could afford to. 

Attempts to find alternatives to jail time, has some states seeking to improve work, life and parenting skills for delinquent parents, most of whom are men.


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Article Author: Isabel McFadden


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