Supreme Court Weighs Rights of Parents Facing Jail Over Child Support

Are child support lockups becoming debtors' prisons?

By Jamilah King Mar 23, 2011

The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a dispute over whether parents who face jail for failing to pay child support should be entitled to court-appointed attorneys. 

NPR notes that the core question before the court is whether long jail terms for civil contempt amount to criminal punishment. Those who say it does, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue parents are being locked up without a fair hearing just for being poor. The Court is expected to issue a ruling by summer.

It’s a problem that takes on special significance given a years-long effort to close a striking racial gap in the percentage of both poor mothers and mothers of color who get child support from biological fathers. According to federal data, the share of black mothers in particular with court orders for child support increased between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, as did the share who actually collected the ordered payments. A 2007 federal study assigned that improvement to increased enforcement. 

For the Supreme Court, the parent in question is Michael Turner of Oconee County, S.C. Turner was jailed repeatedly after failing to make his child support payments of $50 a week. He argues that poor people who face jail time over missed payments have a constitutional right to an attorney, according to the Associated Press. He blames chronic unemployment for his inability to pay, which has landed him behind bars three times over the past two years.

South Carolina is one of five states, including Florida, Maine, New Hampshire and Ohio, where parents jailed for missing child support payments are not automatically guaranteed an attorney. It’s a situation that’s led some to accuse the courts of locking away fathers simply for being poor. "I’d got a blessing of a deal if I had a lawyer with me," the 34-year-old father said, according to the AP.

"It’s a heinous situation. Jail just becomes a revolving door. We’re locking up the poor," Michael McCormick, executive director for the American Coalition for Fathers and Children told the AP. The group advocates for parental rights for fathers. "Child-support lockups are debtors’ prisons."

Rebecca Rogers, the mother of Turner’s child, disagrees. According to NPR, Rogers believes that introducing attorneys into the equation would disadvantage mothers who often can’t afford to pay for private counsel to help receive back child support payments. She also notes that the threat of jail is often the only option that garnered any money from Turner.

When the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled against Tucker, its decision seemed simple: all the delinquent parents had to do to earn their freedom was pay up. "He may end the imprisonment and purge himself of the sentence at any time" by paying at least some of what is owed, the Court said, noting that failure to pay child support is an act of civil contempt and not a criminal offense. A trip to jail, then, isn’t punishment, but a way to get them to comply.

Opponents argue that the burden shouldn’t be on taxpayers to defend delinquent parents. So far, 13 states have filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to side with South Carolina. But AP notes stats that suggest giving delinquent parents a right to legal counsel may improve rates of child support payments. In South Carolina, nearly 47 percent of parents who owe back child support didn’t pay in fiscal year 2009; that is well above the national average of 37 percent.