/For many families, Mississippi’s child support enforcement program proves nonsensical

For many families, Mississippi’s child support enforcement program proves nonsensical

Candace McNeil, a mother of two from Olive Branch, claimed she has received payments as low as 25 cents under the Mississippi child support enforcement program. One Greenville father lost his driver’s licence as a result of the same program. This is a particularly harsh punishment for someone who drives trucks. Dowayne Charlot, now living in Louisiana, was in and out jail for 10 years after letting his child-support debts accumulate. He eventually ended up in a Mississippi debtors prison. Although the child support enforcement program sounds wonderful in theory, many Mississippi families find its effects to be nonsensical. Welfare was primarily for single poor mothers in the 1970s, when the public child-support system was created. The idea behind the enforcement program was to hold fathers responsible for their children so that the government could take the burden of providing for these families. “I support people paying their child maintenance. However, I want you to know that there is a humanistic side to me not being in a position to pay my child support.” Rep. John Hines (D-Greenville), who has unsuccessfully filed bills to make the child support program more accessible to low-income Mississippians. “I have a problem with inhumane responses in humane situations.” The largest social program in America, the child support system, has sometimes been run like a collection agency. It is backed by law enforcement. It has seen a significant overhaul in recent years. Policymakers and national agency leaders are now realizing that a punitive approach towards parenting does not produce better outcomes. Even though Mississippi is the poorest state, this is particularly true. However, Mississippi has not implemented the necessary changes to its child support guidelines in order to ensure that it does not jail fathers who are indigent, a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court banned in 2011. Vicki Turetsky (former commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, 2009-2016) stated in a 2019 report that “higher orders and more rigorous enforcement don’t increase collections when poverty is the barrier to payment.” The child support program has seen a lot of negative stereotypes about spendthrift mothers and deadbeat dads over the years since its inception. One story tells of a single, low-income mom trying to get a father to pay up. Another is of a working father facing a tight paycheck and severe consequences for not complying. When a mother applies for assistance, some custodial parents in Mississippi are forced to enroll. If the father does not comply, the child support payment is reduced or the amount of assistance is cut. Mississippi has the option to withhold child support payments to welfare families, but Mississippi retains the right to pay back any cash assistance the family received. McNeil, a mother of two, stated that the program was meant to be antagonistic. Advocates claim both sides are affected by the fact that the agency division sometimes operates in a counterintuitive manner and imposes broad rules on the unique, complex lives of Mississippi families. Oleta Fitzgerald, the long-serving director of the Children Defense Fund Southern Regional Office, said that it’s almost like eating seed corn. “While the goal of the program is to get the noncustodial parents to invest in their child and the life, it is not possible to generalize the situation of nearly 800,000 children in the state. This presents a challenge to program managers, who are well aware that consistency is a key requirement for the service. Rob Wells, who is the child support enforcement contractor for the state, stated that it was possible to manage a program without having to redesign it every time someone calls. “Because you don’t have one if you do,” McNeil said before McNeil joined the state system in 2015. She stated that when McNeil was still paying her ex-husband, it was like, “Okay, we have these children. They have to be fed. You will find a check in the mailbox. It’s in the bank. You take care. She claims that she has received inconsistant, delayed, and sometimes nonsensical payments from her father, the Mississippi Department of Human Services. It’s almost impossible for McNeil to keep track of the incoming funds and to see how much she has owed. McNeil, an administrative freelancer, was eventually required to apply for food benefits. She had to continue complying with the program. This policy is not common in most states. McNeil stated that sometimes you are forced into poverty, and that this is a common problem. “I just want it to end. It feels like prison.” Officials say that if people feel the state is not aggressive enough in seeking absent fathers, it could be because they don’t understand what the operation entails. Lyndsy, Mississippi’s former director of child support programs, said that this is where the “big myth” lies. “I think many of our families believe that we have investigators who go out… we don’t have those types of resources.” Wells stated that when a mother does not feel she is receiving enough support, Wells asks, “The question becomes, to which level will we enforce the order?” The public program has decreased the frequency and speed with which it files civil contempt cases against parents who aren’t paying. Wells stated that the guy might not have more than part-time, cut grass wages. McNeil said that she has spoken to men who barely have enough money after child support is paid. Mississippi is the state that has the highest average monthly child support payment. It also has the lowest wages and second-lowest labor force participation rates in the country for men. Only 74% of the state’s men between 20 and 64 are either employed or seeking work. Mississippi also has the third highest rate of incarceration in the country. Officials told Mississippi Today that Mississippi must change its program guidelines to ensure men in prison are not considered “voluntarily employed”. However, the practice is still being used today. Hines, the representative, told the story about the Greenville father who accumulated child support debt during his prison sentence. Hines stated that the state had suspended Hines’ driver’s license due to nonpayment. This hampered the truck driver’s career prospects and made it more difficult for him to make the necessary income to support his family. Hines stated that before going to prison, he hadn’t missed a payment. Charlot was arrested by law enforcement officers ten years after his original Pike County conviction. He was charged with not paying child support in 2005. Although Charlot claims he had already paid more than $20,000 in debt at that point, a 2017 judge ordered Charlot to stay at a Restitution Center. This is a modern-day debtors jail. He was required to work at the low-wage jobs where he was placed by correctional officers. He claimed that he was in prison for five years. Charlot stated that the state of Mississippi “f-cked” him. Charlot said that he paid $50,000 for children he never had the opportunity to see in his life. However, a Mississippi Today analysis of data from Mississippi’s Administrative Office of Courts found that at least 185 Mississippians were charged with the same offense between 2016 and 2018. Judges have broad discretion in deciding what happens to parents, regardless of whether they are appearing in court to face criminal charges, civil contempt complaints from the Department of Human Services, or a modification of a support agreement. McNeil stated that there is no rhyme or reason. It’s almost like tornadoes. The former federal commissioner Turetsky envisioned a totally different approach. Although Mississippi is not in the forefront of this trend, other states are adopting more humane policies to their child support programs to ensure that parents don’t get pushed into bigger holes. Experts admit that while the government is easing down on harsh enforcement measures, there must be something to replace them to make sure mothers are not left behind. Experts acknowledge that sometimes the best strategy to increase support is to connect a dad to a job,” Turetsky wrote a decade ago. He also said that child support programs need to “intervene early to treat the underlying causes of nonsupport — whether it be unemployment, parent conflict, or disengagement” in 2010. Mississippi’s outdated child support enforcement system was only doing the minimum to move cases along in 2010. Now that Wells’ company has oiled the program’s wheels, he said the state now has the opportunity to reimagine child support as a social program. We need both parents to communicate with us in order for the program to be successful. Irwin, the former director of the program, said that parents who feel they are being treated as a failure will not be willing to communicate with the state. “I believe it is important to try and change the perception of the program.”