Stealing My Opportunity to be a Father

Photo by Glodi Miessi on Unsplash.

On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott was shot and killed while running away from a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, after being stopped for a broken taillight. As a video of the shooting recorded by a bystander circulated, national conversations began and it came to light that Scott had a warrant out for his arrest for failing to pay child support. His family claimed the warrant was likely what made him run as he was unarmed and involved in only a routine traffic stop. Scott had previously been incarcerated for non-payment on three separate occasions. This case illuminates a major issue—the use of excessively punitive surveillance and enforcement mechanisms—in the child support system, one of the biggest federal programs in the U.S. dealing with issues related to childhood poverty.

Scott was not alone in his fear of being sent to jail for child support debt. While there are no reliable national statistics on how many non-custodial parents are incarcerated for nonpayment in the U.S. (one Congressional Research Service report estimates the figure at around 50,000 persons incarcerated daily in jails and prisons as a result of non-payment of support), in a 2009 study, University of South Carolina law professor, Elizabeth Patterson, found that one out of every eight inmates incarcerated in 33 county jails in South Carolina were being held on contempt of court charges resulting from non-payment. These figures may hold true throughout other jurisdictions. This reality that parents face incarceration for falling behind on their child support payments impacts how these individuals engage with their kids and live their daily lives.

With reports last spring that non-custodial parents with child support arrearages were not eligible for the Coronavirus relief payment passed by Congress, the far-reaching consequences of child support policy and enforcement once again made headlines. The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent reports state that there are 5.4 million custodial parents with formal child support orders in the system, which serves more than one in four children in the U.S. These orders control the ways that non-custodial parents (fathers in particular as mothers account for 80 percent of custodial parents) provide for their children financially. Still, involvement with the system also directly affects many aspects of an individual’s life, beyond just their finances, including how they view their identities as parents and individuals. Moreover, these influences on, or in many cases, threats to, fathers’ identities impact how they relate to their children. Ultimately, the child support system represents a significant state intervention in the family that often causes more strain rather than achieving its stated goals of encouraging “responsible parenting” and supporting financial “self-sufficiency”—a strain which in many instances interferes with fathers’ abilities to maintain strong relationships with their children.

To explore parents’ experiences in the child support system, I conducted observations in several Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts in Central Virginia, in addition to other sites related to child support enforcement, including the Division of Child Support Enforcement office, as well as alternative-to-incarceration and reentry programs. Much of what we know about parents’ experiences in this system comes from interviews and large national data sets, so my goal was to get a sense of what was actually happening on the ground in the courtrooms where these orders are determined and where social interactions between parents and child support system personnel are taking place. In all, I observed more than 300 hearings and more than 75 hours in the other related sites. In addition, I conducted 50 formal and informal interviews with parents and personnel involved in the system. I reviewed text and other materials produced by and about the system, including legislation, informational materials provided by social service agencies, political rhetoric, and news coverage. While I made every effort to note the exact phrasing used by participants during informal interviews and in my observations, I recognize that because the conversations were not recorded, I may be paraphrasing some portions. For that reason, when I report dialogue that took place during my observations or informal conversations, I make note when the quotes might be non-verbatim using “paraphrased from field notes.” I use pseudonyms for all names to protect the identity of participants. This fieldwork, completed over an 18-month period in 2015-2016, revealed the far-reaching implications of this system of state intervention grounded in neoliberal and carceral-oriented ideas about parenthood and family.

The use of incarceration and other punitive mechanisms of child support enforcement highlight the impact of mass incarceration on fatherhood. This practice of punishment within the child support system has been widely debated, reaching national news media, The Urban Institute, The Marshall Project, and as a topic of study for social scientists. In a 2018 piece in the American Journal of Sociology, Lynne Haney describes the “debt of imprisonment,” as well as the “imprisonment of debt,” essentially highlighting the ways that the use of incarceration, both in general and as a mechanism of child support enforcement, creates a reoccurring cycle that is extremely difficult for non-custodial parents to break free from. Heeding the evidence in support of decriminalizing child support debt, the Office of Child Support Enforcement has provided federal guidance to limit the use of incarceration in enforcement as jail time does not benefit the parents or children involved in the system. Nevertheless, many non-custodial parents, including those in 10 percent of the hearings I observed, face jail sentences ranging from a few days to 1 year for not meeting their child support obligations. In Virginia, when non-custodial parents did not make their child support payments for more than two months (which may amount to less than $150), they became eligible for incarceration for non-payment and could have a bench warrant issued for their arrest. Judges frequently used the threat of incarceration as an “encouragement” for parents to get up-to-date on their support payments. Mike, a non-custodial father, described the impact of the threat of jail, saying, “My fear of being back incarcerated is a weight. It makes you wanna take off and run” (paraphrased from field notes), much like what Walter Scott did before being killed during a routine traffic stop.


Many fathers fear being sent to jail for child support debt. (RODNAE Productions, Pexels)

The idea that non-custodial parents had to live in constant fear of incarceration for non-payment of support, so much so that they considered going on the run, was a serious consequence of involvement with the system, even if they were never actually put in jail. These fears impacted the ways that fathers organized their everyday movements, and how they interacted with their children. Brandon, a 25-year-old non-custodial father of two, described his fear of being arrested while with his children, saying,

“I’m nervous. I’m scared. I have very particular things about me. I have a red jacket and I have an orange bicycle with my son’s bike on the back… Anybody that knows me knows that that is me and my son’s livelihood to our survival in [our hometown], to get to and from daycare, to school, or work, or the grocery store. That is how me and my son get around… So all I’m waiting for them to do is to come to my house one day when I’m not there, to see this orange bicycle locked up outside, and to see me riding it one day and place my face or my bicycle and jump out on me. God forbid, I pray that I do not have my son with me if it happens.”

Brandon was eventually arrested for non-payment of support, an experience which he recounted impacted his employment, his emotional state, and his sense of autonomy. He described the experience:

“My son’s grandmother…called the state police…and had them pick me up at semi-pro football practice. It embarrassed me. It humiliated me. It angered me. It had me ready to, to—I just didn’t know how to deal. I wanted to die. I just wanted to die. ‘Cause there’s no way gettin’ around child support, even if you pay child support. Even if you are good with your child support payments but you owe arrears, child support still owns you.”

Noting the embarrassment, humiliation, and anger he felt at this public encounter with law enforcement during which he was arrested in his football pads and cleats, and spent approximately 1 week in jail, Brandon highlighted the psychological and emotional significance of his experience of going to jail for child support debt, the third time he had been arrested for this reason. Also importantly, he underscored the circular nature of the system (pointed to by Haney), which incarcerates individuals who often have little means to make their payments, interrupting the employment they might have, making them even less likely to be able to meet their support obligations in the future.

The neoliberalism and carcerality which undergird the child support system go beyond the use of jail time as a penalty for non-payment of support. These processes, such as the interactions between parents and court personnel during hearings, have a major impact on the ways that these individuals experience their own identities, parenthood and family, community relationships, and work. The language of “deadbeat dad” itself, based on racialized and classed stereotypes of fathers and used everywhere from popular culture to federal legislation, is one manifestation of this stigma that is recognized even by those working within the system. Dating back to the claims made by Daniel Moynihan in his 1965 report on the Black family, and further exacerbated since that time, including in Bill Moyers’ 1986 popular TV special on “the crisis in Black America,” Black fathers have long been branded as absentee and the cause of a host of society’s ills. As the child support system has expanded its reach of enforcement mechanisms that criminalize non-custodial parents, many of the racialized and gendered stereotypes associated with Black fathers have bled over onto all parents who are labeled as “deadbeats.” Because the stigma associated with non-custodial parenthood is so great, in large part because of the assumption that the issue originated and is most common in Black families, any non-custodial parent involved in the child support system might be swept up by the consequences originally meant for Black men.


The use of incarceration and other punitive child support enforcement mechanisms highlight the impact of mass incarceration on fatherhood. (RODNAE Productions, Pexels)

The prospect of interactions with the child support system being explicitly racialized and/or classed were touched upon by some system personnel, including Kenny, who said, “I have to look at the make-up of the courtroom, the judges, the prosecuting attorneys, and even the defenders [defense attorneys]. Often they don’t look like us [Black males]. And what I’ve seen over the years is an inability to relate… And I think we have that and it’s called implicit biases.” Kenny’s explanation highlighted the intersectional importance of race and gender, and implicitly socioeconomic status, in the interactions between non-custodial parents and child support system staff. While Kenny was clear in his perceptions about the impact of implicit bias for Black fathers in the system, in my observations, which were just about evenly split between Black and White non-custodial fathers (38 percent and 37 percent respectively) and all but one of the child support personnel were White, I did not detect any racialized patterns of especially stigmatizing or shaming behaviors. While the noncustodial parents in the urban jurisdiction were predominantly Black, the non-custodial parents in the rural jurisdictions were predominantly White. And in both places, they were stigmatized and shamed frequently, as well as equally facing incarceration and other punitive enforcement mechanisms. Ultimately, the stigmatized status was being perceived as a “deadbeat” which cut across gender, racial, and class lines, and in some respects was more severe for mothers whose inability, perceived as disinterest, to support their children was even more stigmatized. Nevertheless, because of disparities in child support system involvement on the whole—mothers account for more than 80 percent of custodial parents; more than 50 percent of these mothers are women of color and their poverty rate is more than 30 percent—these stigmatizing and shaming interactions in the system at large were disproportionately experienced by particular demographic groups, namely low-income men of color.

Importantly, scholars have highlighted the ways that the assumptions of child support personnel regarding non-custodial parents’ ability to secure employment are racialized, as obtaining stable and worthwhile employment is greatly impacted by the race of applicants. The use of incarceration as a tool of child support enforcement also had a significant impact on fathers’ employment prospects. Derrick explains the trickle-down effect of jail,

“Say they did pick me up on that bench warrant, and I am workin’. So you have me in there for so many weeks or whatever. I end up losing my job, know what I mean? Then I come, I get out, can’t find a job ‘cause I was locked up, and lost my job because I was locked up. So then all you’re gonna do is, ‘cause I’m not paying, so you gonna find me again, and lock me up again… Even though while I’m in there, you’re stackin’ on arrears. So every time I get out to try to do somethin’, it’s not gonna be possible.”

Derrick’s experiences and insights highlight the ways that incarceration compounds the employment and overall financial precarity of many non-custodial parents already facing economic vulnerability.

The need for greater institutional support for low-income non-custodial parents seeking employment was part of the impetus for the creation of alternative-to-incarceration programs developed by some child support enforcement agencies. These programs, which essentially function as probation-style arrangements, are used in some cases to give non-custodial parents an opportunity to get on track with their child support orders before facing jail sentences. William, a caseworker with the Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE), described the motivation for the development of the alternative-to-incarceration program he works with, saying, “The thrust of this program was [DCSE personnel] realized that people were not necessarily deadbeats, but they were dead broke. Which says a lot. Because there’s a stigma attached to child support” (paraphrased from field notes). But even in programs such as the one William is referring to, which he described as being an attempt to overcome the unwarranted stigmatization facing parents who owed child support, these fathers experienced shaming for many things from smoking cigarettes to not disciplining their children.


Fear can impact the ways that fathers organize their everyday movement. (Janine and Jim Eden, Flickr cc)

Such programs proliferated under the substantial funding provided during President Barack Obama’s calls for support of responsible fatherhood initiatives, which would help fill the economic gaps facing non-custodial dads. These initiatives have seen some successes, particularly when they provide material resources to struggling fathers. Jennifer Randles describes the value that the DADS program has for helping fathers take on the challenges they face to be involved in their children’s lives. However, these programs are not benefitting the fathers who are compelled to participate across the board. During my field-work, I observed an alternative-to-incarceration program (ATIP) for non-custodial parents facing jail sentences for non-payment of support. ATIP essentially functioned as a probation program in which parents had to regularly meet and check-in with their caseworkers, apply for jobs, and participate in weekly classes. This program provided no material resources to parents except bus passes (although parents living in the surrounding counties did not have access to public transportation to reach the meeting site). While William recognized the undue stigma associated with child support system involvement, ironically, during my observations, ATIP furthered the stigmatization these parents were facing within the child support system. For example, during a session on anger management, the instructor for the session openly shamed a participant for cursing at the mother of his children. And during the weekly meetings, topics such as alcohol and substance abuse, tobacco use, domestic violence, anger management, and discipline were discussed despite the fact that none of these parents had been convicted of any drug, alcohol, or domestic violence-related offenses nor had demonstrated ineptitude at parenting; the only thing these fathers were “guilty” of was not paying their child support.

The child support system, like the welfare system and child welfare system, represents a significant state intervention into and surveillance of matters of the family. This intercession is largely dependent upon assumptions about the responsibility, deserving-ness, and criminality of the parents who interact with the system. Child support system personnel often have strong beliefs regarding the morality of parents who they assume have no interest in financially supporting their children. And because these personnel are in positions in which they can decide whether to pursue punitive punishments when parents do not meet their court-ordered obligations, these beliefs have significant consequences. Nevertheless, research on fathers’ desires to provide financial support for their children demonstrates that fathers overwhelmingly express that they want to provide financially for their children but are often unable to do so due to significant economic constraints. For example, Shannon, a DCSE attorney said, “I know people get frustrated and might hate the other parent, but where’s your moral obligation to support your kid?” (paraphrased from field notes). Shannon’s comment underscores the strong perceived relationship between providing financial support for children and morality. Paradoxically, when custodial parents receive TANF or Medicaid for their children, the support paid by the non-custodial parent is recouped by the state as reimbursement for the welfare benefits, meaning those resources are in fact supporting the state and not their kids.

While non-custodial parents are fully aware that financial provision is a major part of raising a child, they are also seriously constrained by their involvement with the child support system. Brandon described this challenge saying,

“I am a father and I do understand that children need more than just love and physical attention to be raised on; they need money. And that part I get. I accept that part, I grasp that part, and I know that part. [But] you can be brought into this world, and be raised up to be a perfect person, like Job from the Bible, a blameless man, have done no wrongs and then be put on child support and go to jail just like that. And then your whole life changes.”

Importantly, even custodial mothers who benefit from the payment of child support frequently express that it is more important to them to have non-custodial fathers involved in the lives of their children than to receive regular payments. Courtney, a custodial mom of 2 owed more than $30,000 in back child support from the fathers of her children, said, “I don’t even need the money. I don’t care about that. I just wish they would be in their lives. I want them to have relationships. I don’t care about the money” (paraphrased from field notes).

Ultimately, the child support system creates a strict conceptualization of parenthood that rests on legal definitions and articulations of responsibility, leaving little room for parents to define their roles for themselves. Many non-custodial parents feel that the child support system’s oversight removes their autonomy to be fathers and mothers in the way that they define and feel connected to. Marcus, a 31-year-old father of three who has custody of two of his children, said, “Let me provide for my child. Don’t tell me how to do it. Don’t force me. That’s just how I feel, ‘cause I’m not the type of guy [that’s] tryin’ to run away from it. I want to provide. I look forward to providing. It makes me feel whole.” Marcus’ sentiments clearly articulated the fulfillment and satisfaction that he felt at being a father that provided for his children, without the threat of punitive measures of enforcement by the court. He went on to say, “It’s like they’re robbing me. They’re stealing my opportunity to be a father.” Marcus’ feelings of theft go beyond just the financial aspect; his involvement in the system was stealing his opportunity to achieve the fulfillment of fatherhood on his own in a way that was authentic and defined by and for him.

The consequences of this state intervention are high, especially when it comes to the impact on relationships between fathers and their children. The experience of incarceration, or even the threat of it as a tool of enforcement, had a significant impact on fathers’ abilities to have consistent and stable relationships with their children. Because of the prospect of being incarcerated for non-payment, some fathers considered fleeing their jurisdictions. James says, “I might as well skip town to North Carolina. There’s no way I can make it here working a job and paying all that in child support. At least in North Carolina, I can work under the table and send something back to my kids. I wanna see my kids, but I gotta eat and stay outta jail” (paraphrased from field notes). Certainly, if James and fathers like him feel an urge to move across state lines to avoid the threat of incarceration, their relationships with their children would be greatly impacted—not being able to have regular face-to-face contact, not being able to make school or extra-curricular activities, and not being able to have as much of a hands-on parenting experience had they been able to remain closer.

Overall, the confluence of the multiple dimensions of child support system state intervention has far-reaching consequences for parents and their children. The adverse experiences fathers had with the child support system, especially in being in their eyes unfairly labeled as a “deadbeat,” oftentimes results in feelings of hostility about their situation, which influences the relationships they maintain with their children and their children’s mothers. Marcus described his feelings, saying, “I think it jacks that [relationship with the children] up, man. I think it jacks up the relationship with the mother and the father, man. Sometimes it literally makes a man not wanna be a father, man. For real. It can drive men away, man. Fuck this, fuck her, fuck both of them. Y’know what I’m saying?”

If the child support system is to achieve its intended goal “to encourage responsible parenting, family self-sufficiency and child well-being and to recognize the essential role of both parents in supporting their children,” there is a great deal that could be done to improve the system. Many of these recommendations have been addressed by other scholars studying the impact of involvement with the child support system, including developing debt forgiveness programs (especially for non-custodial parents who owe child support as repayment to states for welfare benefits provided to custodial parents), reforming responsible fatherhood initiatives and developing new programs, and incorporating practices which center the family and parents in the system rather than the interests of the court and the state. Looking abroad can also provide valuable suggestions for managing child support. Many countries take a much less punitive approach, as the U.S. is one of only five countries that use incarceration as an enforcement mechanism and all European countries except the Netherlands provide a guaranteed child support payment to all custodial parents regardless of whether the non-custodial parent is able to pay. I would add to these policy recommendations the need for non-custodial and custodial parents alike to have better education in the processes and policies of the child support system. A substantial number of parents I observed did not have a firm grasp of the procedures associated with filing petitions, presenting evidence in court, and navigating the bureaucracy, a phenomenon which was also recognized by system personnel. These parents would be better served by a system that valued their ability to understand the legal processes they were involved in by providing them with accessible education on their rights. Such an intervention might include providing free informational workshops for parents which would include topics such as identifying and filing the correct petitions, the rules of evidence, the etiquette of the court, and the enforcement mechanisms utilized by the state. In the long term, like all other sites of carcerality, the child support system must be dismantled and replaced with systems which provide care for the parents and children it is tasked with serving. Ultimately, providing more support for parents navigating the child support system, and more broadly rethinking this neoliberal and carceral-oriented state intervention in the family, would help parents have the full experience of parenthood in ways that they visualize, define, and enact for themselves.

Recommended Readings

  • Abdill, Aasha M. 2018. Fathering from the Margins: An Intimate Examination of Black Fatherhood. New York: Columbia University Press. Google Scholar | Crossref
  • Edin, Kathryn, Nelson, Timothy. 2013. Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. Oakland: University of California Press. Google Scholar | Crossref
  • Haney, Lynne . Forthcoming. Incarcerated Fatherhood: Punishment, Debt, and the Paternal Politics of Poverty. Oakland: University of California Press. Google Scholar
  • Mincy, R. B., Jethwani, M., Klempin, S. 2015. Failing Our Fathers: Confronting the Crisis of Economically Vulnerable Nonresident Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  • Waller, Maureen R. 2002. My Baby’s Father: Unmarried Parents and Paternal Responsibility. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Google Scholar | Crossref

Brittany Pearl Battle is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Wake Forest University and co-founder of Triad Abolition Project. Battle’s current work examines courts, carceral logics, and activism around abolition.