Cost is high to jail parents for missed child support

File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Up and down a second-floor hallway in the Charleston County Judicial Center, dozens of men and women sat on benches or stood along the wall waiting for a bailiff to call their name.

They came to court on Broad Street in church clothes and in jeans. One woman wore an apron from the Golden Corral.

Some were seen by a judge, but family court judges in Charleston can’t hear every child support payment case — there are too many of them.

That’s why many parents waiting outside the courtroom Wednesday morning were sent instead to a conference room, where Department of Social Services caseworkers tried to mediate some sort of compromise between both parties.

“They sent me a notice in the mail telling me to come. This is my first time actually appearing in court,” a Mount Pleasant mom said. She estimated her son’s father owes about $4,000 in missed payments. He’s required to pay only $100 a month, she said, and it’s money that she needs. “He just started paying again in the last three years. It’s been consistent except for the last two months.”

But she doesn’t want to see him sent to jail.

“We’re actually friends now — seriously — and he has other children,” the woman said. “It’s not bitter. People, I feel, that usually have some type of anger or malice or something, I think they do it to get back at the father, in my opinion.”

In county jails across South Carolina, an estimated one in eight inmates are locked up for missed child support payments. They’re mostly men, mostly black, and national data suggests 70 percent of them make less than $10,000 a year — or nothing at all.

Charleston County spends about $91 a day, on average, incarcerating an inmate, according to an analysis of county budget records by The Post and Courier.

The best data available suggests the average prison sentence for failure to pay child support is three months, which would cost more than $8,000 per incarcerated parent. But the average purge amount — the amount of money the court expects a parent to pay for their release — is about $1,100. This means, in most cases, the government loses substantial amounts of money attempting to extract far more modest sums from people who can’t afford to pay, with no clear benefit to anyone involved.

“For so many reasons, it doesn’t make sense to be sending these people to jail, but one of them is the cost,” said Elizabeth Patterson, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and the former Department of Social Services director.

An agency spokeswoman said the system does work for many families. DSS collected more than $269 million in child support payments and handled 200,444 cases in the last reported federal fiscal year.

She said for every $1 DSS spends on the program, it collects $4.53 in child support.

But the department doesn’t include the significant cost of incarcerating parents for missed child support payments. In Charleston County alone, running the detention center was the single largest line item expense in the county’s 2014 budget.

The state spends millions of dollars each year shuffling child support debtors back and forth between the courts and county jail cells. Meanwhile, their children gain nothing and grow up with absent fathers.

“There are a lot of guys, they’re working, they’re afraid. They don’t want to go to jail,” said Warren Marcus Nelson, 47, who spent a few days locked up in February for failure to make his child support payments. He owes more than $100,000. “I’m afraid to dream because they can come and take you any time.”

Nelson, a home health care aide who lives in Mount Pleasant, contends he doesn’t even have kids. “It’s just word of mouth that she said I’m the father,” he said. “There was no DNA testing, no blood testing or nothing.”

By all accounts, Walter Scott was a devoted father of four. Still, he couldn’t pay his mandated child support, either. When he was shot and killed by a North Charleston police officer this month, Scott owed more than $18,000. One of his brothers told The Post and Courier that’s probably why he ran away from a routine traffic stop in the first place. Scott spent months behind bars years ago for missed child support payments and he told his family he wasn’t going back to jail.

While Scott’s death sparked national outrage and prompted renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, it also highlights how thousands of South Carolina fathers struggle to comply with this state’s strict child support payment rules.

“It’s the ones who can’t pay who are most likely to wind up in prison,” Patterson said.

In South Carolina, county court clerks issue arrest warrants for failure to pay child support once the money is five days past due. Child support debt continues accumulating once these men are actually arrested and, after they’re released, the state gives them about a month to catch up on their payments. If they don’t have an established payment plan, they’re on the hook for the full amount.

“I don’t know whether there are any (states) that have solved these problems satisfactorily,” said Tonya Brito, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. Her research largely focuses on the trouble some child support debtors have finding legal help.

“It’s a wide-scale problem,” she said. “It’s not isolated to South Carolina.”

More than 50,000 babies are born in South Carolina every year — nearly half of them to unmarried parents, according to state health department records.

Neither the South Carolina Department of Corrections nor the Department of Social Services knows how many incarcerated men and women are serving time for missed child support payments, but local sheriffs and jail administrators say the numbers are substantial. Two surveys, in 2005 and 2009, conducted by Patterson, show roughly one out of every six to eight prisoners in South Carolina were held in contempt of family court for failure to pay.

Those ratios are higher in some Lowcountry counties. In 2009, more than 20 percent of Dorchester County jail detainees and more than 25 percent of Berkeley County inmates owed the family court some amount of money, according to a legal brief Patterson filed with the U.S. Supreme Court five years ago.

Today, in Charleston County, 119 inmates, more than 10 percent of the jail population, are serving time for missed child support payments. Some of these inmates are also serving time for other, unrelated charges.

Meanwhile, more than 2,800 outstanding bench warrants have been issued for failure to pay child support in Charleston County.

Many of these men can’t escape this in-and-out cycle of incarceration, said Lee Moultrie, a community activist in Dorchester County.

“There’s no way possible that they can get out of this,” he said. “We know the policy needs to change.”

Patterson said the overall situation hasn’t appeared to change much since 2009. There was, at one time, a push within the Department of Social Services to update the state’s child support payment rules — to make them more flexible, she said — but the initiative stalled.

“It’s so strange they’re holding on to this,” she said. “It’s so counterproductive in so many areas.”

Brito, the University of Wisconsin professor, pointed out that child support payment systems, which were largely reformed across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, actually work as they’re intended to for many families.

“If someone has regular employment, a stable job,” she said, “and they have an employer who follows the guidelines and garnishes their wages, those people are not in a position to evade payment.”

But problems with payment tend to arise among fathers who don’t have regular employment and live in poverty, Brito said. “The reforms sort of presumed on some level that everyone who isn’t paying is a deadbeat dad, which isn’t true,” she said. “It’s almost unintentionally pitting parents against each other when, in reality, they’re both very poor.”

A James Island single mom raising two children said she hasn’t received a payment from her son’s father in years. “I don’t know where he is,” she said.

They received a $16 check from her daughter’s father about three weeks ago — hardly enough money to make much difference, she said.

“Right now, I have a car that’s falling apart. I have to find rides for my daughter to get back and forth to work,” she said. “I’m having a hard time just paying my utilities — making sure the light and the water is on.”

Nelson, the home health care aide, said he’s scared he’ll be sent back to jail. He recently paid $5,000 toward his child support debt — an amount the court suggested — but he doesn’t know exactly how much more he’s required to pay and remains skeptical his ordeal is over. He doesn’t know if that satisfies his debt.

“You feel like you’re under attack,” Nelson said. And he said Walter Scott probably felt the same way.

“I could have been the one that got killed. It’s just a crazy situation and it’s got to be stopped.”