Tag Archives: incarceration

Fatherhood and justice

Image of father on computer near baby in cribHow did your father influence your life’s path? My father taught me that I could think for myself and solve problems if I tried. He expected me to achieve.

Fathers matter to their children. In fact, research says that father-child relationships influence children as much as mother-child relationships. Fathers influence their children in different ways than mothers. Babies who interact with their fathers tend to acquire language skills more readily. Children whose fathers spend time with them do better in school, have more self-control, and are more ambitious and willing to embrace risk. Teens who feel close to their fathers start having sex later.

Fathers are more involved with their children than ever before. The roles of mothers and fathers are converging. Most families with children have two incomes and share in the care of their children. And more fathers provide the primary care of their children. The research says that African-American fathers are more likely to physically care for their children and prepare meals for them than other fathers. Most nonresident fathers maintain contact with their children, and many are involved with their children’s daily activities. Nonresident fathers who have jobs are more likely to be involved with their children. An equal number of moms and dads say that parenting is rewarding and central to their identity.

So what happens when a father is incarcerated? Emerging research finds that when fathers are sent to jail or prison, their children pay the price. And this is particularly true of sons. Sons of incarcerated fathers show more aggressive behavior and attention problems. Children of incarcerated fathers have more contact with the child welfare system.

The negative impact of incarceration on child well-being goes beyond parental separation of other kinds. Incarceration adds a barrier to employment and diminishes earnings potential. Incarceration can reduce a father’s ability to work, earn, and pay child support after release. Incarceration also negatively impacts the relationship between the parents. It can break up families. When a father or mother goes to prison, a child’s path is changed forever.

In recognition of Father’s Day and the fifth anniversary of Turner v. Rogers, the June 2016 Child Support Report (CSR) provides information on fatherhood program resources in the child support community. We also feature stories on procedural justice because this can be critically important when a child support office is determining a parent’s ability to make payments. In the June edition, you’ll also learn more about customer service at the federal level and how the child support program helps parents and state agencies.

We work in child support to help kids. Let’s put the needs of children first in our daily case decisions.

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“My father is in prison”: The importance of child support and justice partnerships

A son and daughter visit their incarcerated dad--part of Sesame Street’s Little Children: Big Challenges Incarceration initiative © 2013 Sesame Workshop.

A son and daughter visit their incarcerated dad–part of Sesame Street’s Little Children: Big Challenges Incarceration initiative © 2013 Sesame Workshop.

Millions of children in this country have grown up with a parent in prison.  One in two state prisoners are parents. The data reflect strong racial disparities.  One in three black men can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. One in four black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was 14 years old — more than double the rate of black children born in 1978, about the time when our program was getting started.

Many experts believe that the loss of a parent due to incarceration is more complicated and painful for a child than other losses.  Repeated incarceration destroys all but the strongest family relationships. Most children love their parents, miss their parents, want their parents to come home, and mourn when they are gone. Helping parents and children overcome stigma and maintain contact during incarceration can help. But a child who has lost a parent to prison may never fully get over it.

Often, children lose their primary source of financial support when their parents go to prison. Not all of this support comes through the child support program, but instead may be provided informally.  Although there are exceptions, parents are generally not able to pay child support once incarcerated.  After release, many owe an average of $23,000 or more in child support. The prospects for employment are bleak for most re-entering parents.  Many never finished high school. The combination of limited education, limited job skills, limited job openings, and a felony conviction mean that reentering parents and the families that depend upon them have little hope for steady employment.  Debt from child support, fees, and fines, and other debt adds to despair and pushes parents right back into the underground economy. Every door closes.

The OCSE website has many reentry resources including this State by State - How to Change a Child Support Order clickable map.

The OCSE website has many reentry resources including this State by State – How to Change a Child Support Order clickable map.

Many child support agencies, including those featured in this issue, have begun to do something about the collateral consequences of incarceration. They reach out to parents in federal and state prisons and jails. They take affirmative steps to reduce child support orders commensurate with the parent’s loss of income and inability to work. They provide tools for parents to communicate with the child support program during incarceration. They work with community partners to help children maintain contact with their incarcerated parent. They stop the clock on accrual of uncollectible debt. They provide targeted post-prison child support services, partnering with re-entry, fatherhood and employment programs, and helping parents manage child support debt after prison. Opportunities for child support agencies to get involved include pre-sentence orientations, facility visits, modification, debt compromise, and connection to job services and other supports.

Through shared objectives and promising practices, child support and justice partnerships at the federal, state, tribal, and local levels are helping incarcerated parents and their families.  These partnerships promote access and communication between child support agencies and parents, provide for individualized case management, work to establish trust, and improve the likelihood of employment and reliable support for children and families. Jobs and family ties keep people from going back to prison.

Our enhanced March-April Child Support Report features several model practices to consider and a list of resources. We look forward to hearing from others about your work in this critical area.


Lauren Glaze and Laura Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, Bureau of Justice Statistic, Department of Justice, rev. 2010.

Report of the Sentencing Project: Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, 2013.

Sara Wakefield and Christopher Wildeman, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, 2013.

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Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions

U.S. Supreme CourtJune 20 marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Turner v. Rogers case. (See the July 2012 Child Support Report.)  Mr. Turner, the noncustodial parent, was ordered to pay $51.73 per week in child support. Over the course of several years, he was held in civil contempt for nonpayment and incarcerated a number of times.

After the last hearing, Mr. Turner appealed. He alleged that his constitutional rights were violated. He argued that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment required the state to provide him with appointed counsel in a civil contempt hearing that could lead to incarceration. Neither the custodial parent nor the state child support program was represented by an attorney at the hearing.

In Turner, the Supreme Court held (based upon the circumstances in his case) that a state does not necessarily need to provide counsel to a defendant in a child support civil contempt proceeding, as long as the state provides adequate procedural safeguards. The Supreme Court said that due process does require an express finding by the state court that the noncustodial parent has the ability to pay the purge order based upon the individual facts of the case. Last month, I issued policy guidance for state child support agencies implementing the Turner decision and information about alternatives to incarceration.

As a result of the Turner v. Rogers decision, state child support agencies and courts are examining their civil contempt procedures. The goal is not to eliminate contempt procedures in cases where it may be appropriate, but instead to implement fair and cost-effective procedures that assure that families receive reliable child support payments, improve fairness and access to justice for parents without an attorney, and reduce the need for jail time. Incarceration may indeed be appropriate in those cases where noncustodial parents can afford to support their children but willfully evade their parental responsibilities by hiding income and assets. However, jail is not appropriate for noncustodial parents who do not have the means to pay their child support debts.

The first step to reducing the need for contempt hearings is to set accurate child support orders. The research is clear that setting realistic orders based on actual income can actually improve compliance, increasing both the amount of child support collected and the consistency of payment. The research says that compliance falls off when orders are set above 15 to 20 percent of a noncustodial parent’s income.

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. For the 30 million Americans who don’t yet have health insurance, this law will offer an array of quality, affordable, private health insurance plans to choose from starting in 2014. Those who can’t afford insurance will get tax credits that make coverage affordable.

Already, 34 states including the District of Columbia have received 100 percent federally funded grants to set up health insurance marketplaces, known as exchanges, which will allow individuals and small businesses to compare and choose private health plans. Each state will take the lead in designing its own menu of options. In the child support program, we know that our medical child support responsibilities are evolving. We look forward to working with child support professionals in the coming months and years to develop medical child support policies that complement state health care policy decisions and work for families.

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