More than 150 years ago, Charles Dickens wrote about debtors’ prison, letting his readers understand just how absurd a construct it is. When we read Dickens now, the thought of putting people in jail because they cannot pay their debts seems silly. And yet, the idea has resurfaced, though perhaps informally.
Just ask someone who has fallen behind on child support payments. A child support agreement includes a court order for the noncustodial parent to pay. The court order is used as a stick rather than a carrot: If you don’t pay, you will be held in contempt, and you will go to jail. It may work with parents who can afford to pay but, for one reason or another, choose not to. For low income parents, parents who are already struggling to hold onto a job, to make ends meet, that jail time is just another blow to their hopes of financial self-sufficiency.
Remember, the only way to clear up a child support debt is to pay it or to negotiate some kind of settlement. Bankruptcy will not touch it. Nor, it turns out, will the debt go away when the child turns 18. One advocate claims she has seen grown children paying the child support debts owed by their fathers, just to keep them out of jail.
Jail will not release you from the debt, either. In fact, if you are in jail for a child support infraction or for a serious crime, you can continue to rack up child support debt. As one man explained, he was serving a seven-year sentence for robbery when he received the order to pay $183.50 twice a month to his ex-girlfriend (they have a daughter together). He thought he would start paying when he got out and got a job. Imagine his surprise when he got out of jail and was informed he was already $4,000 behind.
A parent that is incarcerated or committed may request a modification to the support agreement. In Illinois, a parent that owes child support to the state may work with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services’ Project Clean Slate to clear the debt. An attorney can explain these and other options. The challenge is to act quickly.
And even then it may not be enough. Not every applicant will qualify nor every petition succeed. Family advocates complain that many of these support laws are actually keeping families apart. The objective of support is to ensure the well-being of the child. It is not meant to be a penalty.
Source: Peoria Public Radio, “ Dead Broke: The ‘Why’ Behind Unpaid Child Support,” Jennifer Ludden, Nov. 19, 2015