Health & Human Services

Parents Owing Child Support Avoid Jail (Not For Free)

In Virginia, where parents owe more than $2 billion, a program helps solve the underlying issues that keep them from paying up.
by | October 2012

More than $35 billion is owed in child support payments in the U.S. In fact, one out of every four parents who are owed child support gets nothing; and parents who owe it reportedly pay less than 60 percent of their debts on average, according to the National Center for State Courts. When parents don’t get the money they need from noncustodial parents, they often look instead to government welfare programs to help make ends meet.

The traditional solution for getting noncustodial parents to pay up is to send them to court and then jail if the judge finds them in contempt. This method has proven ineffective, perhaps because sitting in jail makes it hard to write checks -- and even harder to earn money so those checks actually clear. It’s not always that parents don’t want to pay their child support; it’s often that they can’t. So instead of sending already financially struggling parents to jail, more than half of states now have programs to help noncustodial parents overcome the barriers that are keeping them from making good on their child support payments.

Even in an ideal economy, most parents still rack up child support debt because they don’t have a job and can’t afford the payments -- a problem that only worsens when the country is in a recession. In Virginia, where noncustodial parents owe more than $2 billion to nearly half a million children, judges refer people facing jail time to the Intensive Case Monitoring Program. ICMP matches them up with a case manager who works with community partners to solve the problems keeping them from paying child support, such as the inability to secure steady work.

Since ICMP began four years ago, it has expanded to 25 courts and resulted in the collection of more than $4 million in child support, according to Glenn Stratton, the state’s ICMP manager. “The judges recognize that incarceration doesn’t work for everyone,” he says, “because some people have legitimate reasons for not being able to pay.”

Not just any parent found in contempt of court for failing to pay child support can enter the program. Participants must be referred. There’s no checklist of criteria a person must meet, Stratton says, but “the ideal person is someone who might pay child support if they can overcome some of the barriers keeping them from paying.”

Once a person receives a referral, he immediately meets with the district’s case manager. The pair identify what’s keeping the parent from paying child support, sign a contract with appropriate program requirements (such as getting substance abuse treatment or applying for a certain number of jobs) and create a customized plan for how the participant will resolve the root of his problems. If parents fail to comply with the program at any point, they can be booted out of ICMP and into jail. Parents “graduate” from the program once they have a steady job and demonstrate the ability to pay child support over time.

Virginia is just one of at least 28 states that have some kind of program for helping parents with child support debt get jobs, but few allow parents to avoid jail once they’ve been found in contempt of court. Programs in at least two states -- Kentucky and North Carolina -- put parents under house arrest while electronically monitoring their movement. Virginia modeled its program after a similar one in Texas, which began in 2005 and has since collected close to $16 million in child support.

More than 1,300 parents have been referred to ICMP -- roughly one-third of whom have successfully completed it, and another third who have been removed from or dropped out of the program. Even when parents don’t finish ICMP, though, they pay almost three times more child support after participating in it compared to before; while parents who graduate pay more than triple the amount of child support than before ICMP.

Eighty-six percent of program participants are men. In addition to helping fathers pay their dues, the program also hopes to encourage noncustodial parents to become more involved in their children’s lives and to improve communication between parents. It already does that, but Virginia wants to up its game and is looking for ways to expand its fatherhood resources and co-parenting activities. “This is one of the few initiatives that’s actually successful at reaching out to fathers,” Stratton says.

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