Written by Ashley McDowell

Dec 03


“Deadbeat” vs. “Deadbroke” Dads

A recent National Public Radio story shed light on the many low-income fathers across the nation who owe part of the country’s collective $113 billion in unpaid child support debt. The story presents a contrast to the prevailing narrative of “deadbeat” fathers who refuse to work, evade parental obligations, or hide money to avoid supporting their children. It introduces us instead to fathers who do what they can to be good parents to their children, but who face systemic barriers to steady, gainful employment, such as stints in prison and resulting criminal records, or a lack of formal education.
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Apr 24


The Case For Reasonable Child Support Enforcement

As a native South Carolinian, I feel personally and profoundly impacted by the recent shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston. But as a legal services lawyer who specializes in family law, I cannot help but to think that what happened to Mr. Scott was avoidable in more ways than one.

When he was shot, Mr. Scott was fleeing from a police officer. In the immediate aftermath of that horrible and senseless tragedy, much of the public discourse has focused on police practices, and in particular, on the actions of the officers involved in the incident. Mr. Scott’s family members later revealed to reporters that they believed Mr. Scott ran from the officer because he feared that his child support debt would land him in jail, as it had done several times in the past. Read more →

Oct 25


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.

Feb 24


Not Just “Deadbeat Dads”

Ashley McDowell, Staff Attorney

I met Mr. A for the first time at the D.C. Superior Court. He had come to the Child Support Community Legal Services Project seeking help to reduce his child support order for his three grown children. In the early nineties, he had been ordered to pay about $700 per month in child support. For 18 years of his adult life, however, he was in jail and unable to pay child support. He was facing tens of thousands of dollars in arrears. After he was released from jail, Mr. A did manage to find work and make payments as best as he could, but he was eventually laid off from his job. He now lived in a shelter and was in an intensive drug rehab program, with the hope of getting back on his feet one day.

For the past seven months, lawyers from Legal Aid, Bread for the City, and other community partners have staffed the Child Support Community Legal Services Project, also known as the Child Support Resource Center. Most litigants that appear for hearings in the Paternity and Support branch are pro se. Many have little to no experience with the legal system and are often unaware of their rights or of legal procedure. Four days a week, project attorneys provide legal information, advice, and same-day representation on a variety of child support and paternity issues. Our services are free and open to both custodial and non-custodial parents, moms and dads, and even third-party caregivers.

Many of the clients that have been served by the Resource Center are non-custodial fathers like Mr. A who have not paid child support in quite awhile and have amassed thousands of dollars in arrears. Many people would call these men “dead-beat dads” and question whether they deserve legal assistance, but this characterization fails to recognize the circumstances that have led many of these non-custodial parents to have become as indebted as they are. The Project does not provide legal assistance to parents who seek to avoid their responsibilities towards their children. We do, however, understand that the existence of arrears on a parent’s balance sheet does not necessarily mean that the parent has purposefully evaded his or her child support obligation.

While we all acknowledge the sluggish economy, and the impact that it has had on everyday workers, recent numbers reveal just how dire our country’s economic situation really is. According to the Census Bureau, nearly half of all Americans now live at or near the poverty line. Sixteen percent of Americans now live below the poverty line, and one-third earn incomes between 100% and 199% of the poverty level. These new figures take into account medical bills, child care expenses, and taxes to provide a more accurate picture of Americans’ economic health. And the picture is crystal clear: too many Americans are out of work, wages are stagnant or decreasing, and the costs of essentials such as housing and utilities have remained the same or increased.

We see the impact of this perfect storm at the courthouse each day. Fathers who paid child support consistently each month were suddenly laid off and have been unable to find work for years. Fathers with criminal records find it nearly impossible to get a job interview, and watch as their arrears accrue. Those fortunate enough to find part-time work have to rely on the generosity of friends and family to make up the difference. Most parents want to provide for their children, but it has been more difficult than ever for parents to meet their responsibilities. At the Resource Center, we provide legal assistance to moms and dads who have had the most trouble weathering the current economic storm. In Mr. A’s case, Legal Aid was able to temporarily reduce his child support order to $0 per month. This will help ensure that he won’t face contempt charges while he is in his drug program and give him an opportunity to look for work. It is always our goal to help clients reach fair and accurate child support orders—orders that non-custodial parents can realistically pay and that will contribute towards the well-being of the District’s children.