Walter Scott dogged by system that "criminalizes" debt

Chuck Burton/ap Anthony Scott holds a photo of himself (center) and his brothers Walter (left) and Rodney this week at his North Charleston home. Walter Scott was killed by a police officer after a traffic stop last week. The officer, Michael Slager, is charged with murder.

Some 15 years ago, long before Walter Scott's death by a North Charleston police officer made national headlines, a family court judge threw him in jail for 15 days because he hadn't made his child support payments.

Scott already knew how the system worked — he owed support for two children, and then two more — but he claimed at the time that the Department of Social Services sent some of his money to the wrong mother.

Nevertheless, he went to jail. And then he lost his $35,000-a-year job at a film company.

“I got mad at everybody in the whole world because I just lost the best job I ever had,” Scott told The Post and Courier in 2003. “I just stopped doing everything. I just closed myself into a little shell and started doing things I shouldn't have been doing.”

He drank. He found odd jobs. Still, he couldn't make enough money to make the payments he owed.

“I didn't even care if I lived or died,” he said.

Then, Scott seemed to turn a corner. He was featured in an article about a promising program called “Father to Father,” designed to help men who had fallen behind on their payments. He admitted his mistakes, then turned himself in to the state for even more missed child-support payments. He spent another five months in jail.

“This whole time in jail, my child support is still going up,” he said. “I said, 'Man, you got four kids depending on you, and you got people in your life that love you. You got to get it together.' ”

Maybe Walter Scott eventually became the father he hoped he could be. Maybe “Father to Father” helped him find the footing he needed to support his family. Maybe it didn't. After all, those child support payments caught up with him again.

He owed nearly $18,104 in child support, according to court documents. He'd already been jailed three previous times.

“He said that's what he would do, he would run, because he's not going to jail for child support,” his brother, Rodney Scott, told MSNBC on Wednesday. Walter Scott, father of four, was a wanted man. Like untold thousands of other South Carolinians, a warrant had been issued for his arrest because, once again, he hadn't paid his child support.

State law allows county court clerks to issue bench warrants once these bills are only five days past due. The state can levy a variety of other penalties, including revoking someone's driver's license or garnishing their wages, for failure to pay child support, but many of the offenders languish in county jails across the state. There, child support bills continue to accumulate, setting many men up for a seemingly endless cycle of failure, some advocates say.

“I hate it to see when fathers don't pay child support,” said Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, but “killing someone over it — that's just mind-boggling.”

Richard Barr, director of community development for the S.C. Center for Fathers and Families, called South Carolina's child support collection policy — known as “Rule 24” — among the strictest in the country. A bill five days past due hardly warrants jail time, he argued.

“That's tough,” Barr said. “If that happened to me every time my credit card came out, I'd be in trouble.”

Barr, and others, say child support enforcement shouldn't be a public safety issue anyway.

“When you make a family issue a policing issue, what you literally do is end up treating debtors like criminals,” he said. “It's very different to be wanted for murder and to be behind on a bill.”

DSS, which manages 75 percent of all child support cases here, said it doesn't know how many active warrants have been issued for men and women in South Carolina who have failed to make timely child support payments. Court clerks in Charleston and Dorchester counties would not provide their own numbers.

Sandra Holland, support enforcement supervisor for Berkeley County Family Court, said there are currently 1,103 active bench warrants for failure to pay support in Berkeley County alone.

“There is no question that there are lots and lots of people who are behind. The caseloads are phenomenal,” Berkowitz said. “At one point, a couple of years ago, our DSS child support attorneys had some of the highest caseloads in the country. They're dealing with huge volume and huge numbers and they don't always have the resources to track someone down.”

Berkowitz said the number of bench warrants issued for failure to pay child support seemed to abate after a U.S. Supreme Court case four years ago forced state child support agencies and family courts across the country to re-evaluate their policies. The federal case actually originated in the Upstate after Michael Turner, an Oconee County resident, was imprisoned several times for failure to pay child support.

The federal government determined incarceration may be justified in some of cases, but, by and large, “jail is not appropriate for noncustodial parents who do not have the means to pay their child support debts.”

“It really kind of stopped for a while,” Berkowitz said. “I didn't think they were picking people up or issuing bench warrants for child support.”

The number of bench warrants issued varies from county to county, Barr explained. Smaller counties with lighter dockets tend to issue more of them, he said.

South Carolina received an $8 million federal grant to launch “Operation Work” last year — a program that helps fathers who owe child support payments find ways to support their families. Only seven other states were invited to participate.

Operation Work is currently available in Charleston, Horry and Greenville counties. Fathers who qualify regularly meet with counselors, job coaches and program coordinators to make sure they're meeting their families' needs.

Almost 100 people have enrolled so far, Barr said. “We work with men every day who have never had a resume.”

Some of them also qualify for assistance to attend technical college or see a tutor for help with schoolwork. While they're enrolled in the program, their child support payments are suspended.

Unlike spending time in jail, where their debts keep adding up, Operation Work offers participants a temporary reprieve to establish work skills they need to earn money.

The alternative is a life in the shadows, Barr said, because “as soon as you get out of jail, you're a fugitive again.”

This is just the type of program Berkowitz said South Carolina needs.

“We've got to rethink how we help families,” she said. “Because you can't pay child support when you're in jail.”

Anthony Scott, Walter Scott's older brother, knows why he ran.

“I know why he ran away. We know why he ran away. Everybody knows why he ran away now,” Anthony Scott said. “I wasn't saying it before, but it's out there now.”

He didn't know how much Walter owed in child support or why he fell behind on his payments, other than to say he was “just living life.” According to Fielding Home for Funerals, Scott was a warehouseman at Brown Distribution before his death. The Associated Press reported he was a temporary forklift operator.

In 2003, child support payments were automatically drafted from Scott's paycheck. Back then, he earned about $800 a month. It is unclear how much money he made at Brown Distribution.

“If God ever blessed me and I came into some money, I'd help,” Scott told the newspaper 12 years ago.

But his brother said the deck was always stacked against him.

“I hate for anybody to get in the child support system. It can be trying. It doesn't seem to work out for them,” Anthony Scott said. “(Walter) said that it was crazy, that he couldn't wait to get over it. But once you're behind, you're behind.”

Brooks Brunson and Bo Petersen contributed to this report. Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.