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Child support, indigent parents and jail

Do you think a low-income parent who has failed to pay his or her child support should be given representation by the state at civil contempt hearings? That issue is the issue that the United States Supreme Court will soon have to decide. At the root of the issue is an indigent parent's ability to pay and how best to incentivize the parent to pay child support. But, a question remains. Can you incentivize an indigent parent to pay child support with the threat of jail time if they genuinely do not have the ability to pay?

The facts of the case start with a father who failed to pay child support. The father is a low income parent who was jailed for his failure to pay $6,000 in child support. The man served a sentence of one year for his failure to pay but could have gotten out of jail earlier had he made the payment. The problem is the father did not have a job and once in jail he was not able to earn any income. To be fair, this was not the only instance where the man was jailed for his inability or choice to not pay. The mother of his child says the father once chose to purchase drugs instead of providing a payment.

The father and his lawyer, who now represents him, argue that the man was jailed because he was poor and that the possibility of jail time for his civil contempt for failing to pay child support amounts to criminal punishment. Since the father faced the possibility of jail time the state should have provided him with an attorney. The mother of the father's child argues that fathers often choose not to pay when they are able, providing a lawyer paid for by the state would disadvantage mothers who cannot afford private attorneys and the father held the keys to his own cell because he could have been released if he had paid.

Source: NPR, "Supreme Court weighs rights of 'deadbeat' parents," Nina Totenberg, 3/23/11

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