As a native South Carolinian, I feel personally and profoundly impacted by the recent shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston. But as a legal services lawyer who specializes in family law, I cannot help but to think that what happened to Mr. Scott was avoidable in more ways than one.
When he was shot, Mr. Scott was fleeing from a police officer. In the immediate aftermath of that horrible and senseless tragedy, much of the public discourse has focused on police practices, and in particular, on the actions of the officers involved in the incident. Mr. Scott’s family members later revealed to reporters that they believed Mr. Scott ran from the officer because he feared that his child support debt would land him in jail, as it had done several times in the past.
The child support angle on this tragedy has gotten more traction in recent weeks. Both the New York Times and MSNBC, for example, ran pieces exploring many of the aggressive child support debt collection practices used by jurisdictions across the country, and the impact of those practices on parents just like Mr. Scott. In every state, including the District of Columbia, parents who do not pay child support can be punished with jail time.
In the District, parents who fail to meet their child support obligations can be punished with a finding of civil contempt. Ideally, incarceration should only be imposed on those parents who refuse to pay child support despite an ability to pay. In other words, no- or low-income parents who miss child support payments because they do not have the ability to pay theoretically should not be jailed. Yet, practitioners and advocates find that many non-custodial parents who struggle to make ends meet are being found in contempt and incarcerated—often without the benefit of legal counsel.
Imprisonment is not the only punishment that parents who miss child support payments face. They may, for instance, find their drivers’ licenses are suspended—often without any actual notice. These parents generally have little recourse but to pay a substantial fee (if they can afford it) to get their licenses back or risk driving to work without a proper license. While jurisdictions need the ability to pursue for child support debt, the punitive nature of many enforcement policies only serves to frustrate parents’ ability to earn money and pay their child support orders.
As an attorney who staffs Legal Aid’s Child Support Community Legal Services Project (which we jointly operate with Bread for the City), the circumstances facing countless parents just like Mr. Scott are not news to me. His situation mirrored those of many of the clients that we serve through the Child Support Resource Center, located at the courthouse.
Through the Resource Center, we provide advice and same-day representation to both mothers and fathers; however, many of our clients are low-income fathers who are unable to pay their child support orders due to unemployment, incarceration, and physical and mental disabilities. Given these recent events, we hope that jurisdictions have a better understanding of the collateral consequences of punitive child support policies, and will work towards collecting child support without marginalizing low-income parents.