Child Support Collections and Incarcerated Parents
By: M. Scott Gordon
When a parent is required to pay child support in Chicago or anywhere in Illinois but fails to make timely payments, can child support collections methods get that parent to pay? Or in some instances, do the collection methods for failure to pay child support—including imprisonment—actually hinder child support collections? According to an article in The New York Times, child support collections mechanisms that focus on punishing the non-paying parent rather than obtaining funding for the child can create a harmful cycle in which the child ultimately loses. As the article explains, an incarcerated parent often cannot afford to make child support payments, and when that parent is released, child support enforcement can often result in that parent ending back up in jail.
Is this a policy issue that should be addressed in Illinois?
Parents Incarcerated for Failure to Pay Child Support
When we think about child support collections and incarcerated parents, there are two distinct situations that sometimes can be interrelated. First, there is a situation in which a parent does not make child support payments and is incarcerated due to his failure to pay. While in jail, he cannot earn an income sufficient to make child support payments, and the total owed continues to grow. Once released, that parent might again struggle to make child support payments, and that parent may end up in jail once again. The article in The New York Times emphasizes that this can be a harmful cycle—to the child in particular. If a parent is incarcerated for failing to make child support payments, that punishment for the parent does not necessarily do any good for the child.
As the article explains, this situation can arise in a number of ways, but sometimes this type of situation occurs because the child support order exceeds the parent’s ability to pay. While it is difficult to gather nationwide statistics on child support collections and unpaid child support, a study conducted by the Urban Institute in 2007 suggested that about 70 percent of unpaid child support is owed by parents with an annual income that places them below the poverty level. The article clarifies how, in certain instances, “parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for child support debt simply because they’re poor.”
Already Incarcerated Parents Who Cannot Make Payments
The other situation involves parents who are incarcerated for reasons other than failure to pay child support, but because they are incarcerated, they do not have enough income to make timely child support payments. A fact sheet from the Administration for Children & Families and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) indicates that approximately one out of every 28 kids has a parent who is in jail, and for African American children, that number is much higher—more than 10 percent. The fact sheet makes clear that “incarcerated noncustodial parents often enter prison with child support obligations and arrears without any realistic ability to pay them.” Not only does unpaid child support become a debt issue for the incarcerated parent, but it also becomes a detriment to the child.
In 2013, proposed legislation (House Bill 2330) aimed to suspend an obligation to pay child support upon incarceration, but the bill did not pass. The HHS fact sheet suggests that such modifications to child support orders actually may be able to help kids more in the long run. When incarcerated parents are released, they will not have an overwhelming child support debt that could land them back in jail. Instead, they may be able to begin making timely payments to support their child’s upbringing.
Contact a Chicago Child Support Collections Lawyer