Fix broken child support system

A white board for the Father to Father program in North Charleston, S.C., April 16, 2015. The death of Walter Scott, who was a participant in the program, has focused attention not just on police violence, but on the use of jail to pressure parents to pay child support, a policy employed by many states. (Travis Dove/The New York Times)

In August, Berkeley County will offer residents behind on child support payments an amnesty day to plead their case in family court and get back on track without threat of arrest. That day could mean the difference between a payment plan and prison time for hundreds of county residents.

But it is ultimately little more than a bandage on a gaping policy flaw, one that irreparably harms thousands of South Carolinians each year without actually benefitting the state’s families or children.

Under current South Carolina law, non-custodial parents must pay child support in an amount and on a schedule determined by their employment status and income, among other factors. If the non-custodial parent — almost always the father — fails to meet those requirements, the state can respond by garnisheeing wages, withholding tax returns, revoking a variety of state-issued licenses or docking public benefits.

A judge can also issue a summons for the parent to appear in court, and can hold him in contempt for failing to appear. Contempt of court carries a fine of up to $1,500, a year in prison, or both. Too often, parents who fall behind on payments end up serving time.

The plight of South Carolina parents who fall behind on child support payments came to glaring light in the wake of the tragic shooting death of Walter Scott in April. Mr. Scott, who was shot while running from a North Charleston police officer, had been arrested and imprisoned multiple times for failure to pay child support. He owed support and had an active warrant for his arrest at the time of his death.

Mr. Scott’s is hardly an isolated case. One 2009 study found that roughly one in eight South Carolina prisoners was behind bars for unpaid child support.

Worse, the amount of child support owed continues to increase even while a parent remains imprisoned, despite their obvious inability to earn a living. And there is no grace period for repaying support after a parent is released from prison, despite the fact that prison sentences can act as serious barriers to finding stable, gainful employment.

Not surprisingly, parents imprisoned over child support overwhelmingly live in poverty, and many have long struggled with unemployment or underemployment, even before their prison sentences.

In fact, reliance on social safety net programs appears to be one of the primary factors that can land a deadbeat parent in jail rather than receiving a less severe punishment. If either parent in a child support case receives public benefits, the county automatically gets involved in the case after as little as five days of non-payment.

That almost always means a court order is issued, initiating a legal process that often ends in jail time for failure to comply.

With more than half of all kids living apart from one of their parents, child support increasingly serves as an important source of income for millions of parents around the country. The state must have an effective means of encouraging — and sometimes forcing — parents to financially support their children.

But South Carolina’s system punishes those who fail to pay in all the wrong ways. In doing so, it imposes the dual costs of imprisoning thousands of non-violent adults and forcing custodial parents to either work overtime or rely on safety net programs to make ends meet.

Rather than focusing on punitive action, the state should make more efforts to bring child support payers up to a level at which they are capable of making payments on time and in full. That starts with keeping them out of jail and in the workforce.