Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Offering Real Alternatives to Incarceration for Parents Facing Contempt

Ashley McDowell, Staff Attorney

Last month, the Center for Family Policy and Practice recently issued a Policy Briefing focused in part on issues important to Legal Aid’s client community and brought to the forefront by the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Turner v. Rogers: How to ensure that low-income parents comply with child support orders, and how to effectively use tools like civil contempt and social service programs to help non-compliant parents pay.  Programs that offer parents assistance with employment needs or job training as an alternative to contempt and incarceration are an important step in the right direction, but many low-income parents have other unaddressed needs – such as mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and a lack of stable and affordable housing – that frustrate their ability to take full advantage of “jobs not jail” programs.  If vulnerable parents are unable to make good use of these types of programs, they are still at risk for contempt and incarceration.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement released a related report, Alternatives to Incarceration, highlighting what jurisdictions around the country are doing to confront these issues.  The report finds that “jobs not jail” programs are most effective when they address the constellation of challenges that low-income parents often face.   Successful employment programs include not only job placement assistance, but also case management, where professionals monitor a parent’s transition into a new job and communicate with the court and agencies about the parent’s progress.   Also successful are specialized problem-solving courts created and run by the judiciary.  In these programs, the court takes the lead on addressing not only child support, but the other various obstacles facing low-income parents.  Attorneys at Legal Aid have seen the success of these types of intensive programs in the District’s Fathering Court. 

A holistic approach is needed in the District to meet the needs of low-income parents who deal with unemployment and underemployment on a daily basis.  There is little doubt that providing employment programs to low-income parents who are not paying child support is preferable, especially when we consider the monetary cost to incarcerate a parent.  However, to ensure the most successful outcomes for both parents and children, these programs should address the many barriers to employment which make it difficult for some parents to obtain and keep a job.  Doing so would serve the best interests not only of parents facing contempt, but also of the children who rely on those parents for the support that they need and deserve.

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