Aresty Poster Final (PDF)

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Collateral Consequences of Criminalized Child Support
Policy in the United States

Rhiannon Jones, Aresty Research Assistant to
Brittany P. Battle, M.A. & Professor Paul McLean, Ph.D.
Rutgers University - New Brunswick , School of Arts & Sciences, Sociology Department

This project examines the collateral consequences of child
support policy and involvement with the child support system in a
contemporary and comprehensive context. The project uses a
sociocultural framework to examine qualitative data, including indepth interviews with parents, adults who were involved with the
system as children, and professionals in the child support system, as well
as courtroom observations. This textured and rich data expands upon
current research, as it includes a demographically diverse sample of
participants living in the South. The role of the research assistants in this
process includes extensive review of literature in the field, transcription
of interviews, and coding and analysis of the data.
Our main research goals fall into two categories. First we
seek to understand the major consequences facing noncustodial
parents’ emotional and financial ability to parent and how these
processes are classed, gendered, and racialized. Second, we hope to
process this data into consumable information for the general public to
encourage more complete knowledge of the actual workings of the
system. This project demonstrates that non-custodial parents
involvement with the child support system creates serious collateral
consequences including their definitions and experiences of
fatherhood, ability to be involved with their child(ren), repercussions of
incarceration, and the punitive nature of the system.

Our research project is in part a response to the substantive
and methodological gaps in previous examinations of the American child
support system. Dominant cultural opinions on child support have
influenced much of the conversation surrounding legislation and research
thus far which largely focuses on custodial mothers in the system. With more
than 6.5 million custodial parents with child support orders living in the
United States we recognize that the children and noncustodial parents,
primarily fathers, experiences need to be investigated as well.
Popularization of the “deadbeat dad” trope everywhere from presidential
podiums to highway billboards has ostracized noncustodial fathers from the
process and this study aims to reintroduce them to the conversation.
Research has shown these stereotypes have taken a toll on noncustodial
fathers, with greater perceptions of discrimination due to their noncustodial
status being associated with more depressive symptoms and behaviors and
poorer relationships with their children. The criminalization of unpaid child
support has also greatly affected fathers ability to both be involved in their
children’s live and pay support orders due to diminished wages and limited
earning potential post-incarceration, leading to a cycle that is hard to
break. Research has also shown us the highly racialized and classed
dynamics of child support in many ways: the system does not take in-kind
support into consideration, support adjustment processes are highly
complicated, the system adds to mass incarceration of young black men,
and is often directly connected to welfare benefits, leading us to our
research questions.



“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, and now I'm gonna... Even though, 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. That's something I think
needs to be changed; 'cause it's uh.. For a person that is trying to do
what they supposed to do, how is that supposed to help, y'know
what I mean?” – 38 year old father of 3

My research focused specifically on the outcomes of being involved
with the Child Support System and sought to answer the question: What are the
consequences of being involved in the system for noncustodial parents? The three
main consequences I investigated were criminalization and incarceration, the
system being used as a punishment and the impact on the ability to be a
father/involved in a child’s life.
The project’s methods of data collection were primarily ethnographic
and included observation of family court proceedings and sessions in related
agencies and offices, review of child support and welfare legislation, and in-depth
interviews conducted with parents involved in the child support system, adults who
had parents involved in the system as children, and officials and staff involved in the
system. Analysis of this data was primarily conducted through coding of transcribed
interviews and field notes from observations.
Our research sample focused on participants from the South where
data on the Child Support System is lacking, and was intentionally diverse in racial
identities, socioeconomic status and marital status. We also chose to use both
custodial and noncustodial parents to fill in gaps in child support research thus far.

The following quotes from research participants relate to the three
consequences I investigated, criminalization/incarceration, the system
being used as a form of punishment, and the impact on a father’s
ability to parent due to involvement in the child support system.

“I think it’s, it’s kinda backwards, uh and I think that you end
up having poor people going to jail for money, um, and if they had
money to pay it then they wouldn’t go to jail, and then you have
debtor’s prisons and that’s what it is, being locked up for money” –
Child Support System Official

“"You are a great person, and it doesn't even matter what
kind of person you are you don't have a criminal background. So if
you, if you lose your job you're going to jail for child support, which will
then in fact give you a criminal background." - 25 year old father of 2

CNN. (1998). Clinton Signs Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act. All Politics. Retrieved from
Caldwell, C., Antonakos, C., Tsuchiya, K., Assari, S., & De Loney, E. (n.d). Masculinity as a Moderator of Discrimination and Parenting
on Depressive Symptoms and Drinking Behaviors Among Nonresident African-American Fathers. Psychology Of Men &
Masculinity, 14(1), 47-58.
Geller, A., Garfinkel, I., & Western, B. (2011). Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families. Demography, 48(1),
Solomon-Fears, C. (2016). Child Support: An Overview of Census Bureau Data on Recipients (CRS Report No. RS22499). Retrieved from
Congressional Research Service.




“Arrearages are a sledgehammer and it’s not a shield for the
child it’s used to punish the fathers” -Child Support System Official
“She hit me where it hurt, y'know what I mean? I mean I,
maybe it mighta been revenge, or somethin' like that, but like, she
literally... Where else could she hurt me other than my pockets? I
mean, if that was her intention to hurt me, then she made a pretty
good decision, because oof, it hurt me. It, it definitely hurt me.” – 31
year old father of 3

“I feel like the system is geared towards men that, that, that
run out, that don't want to be a father. The one's that, that, that are
scared… And I think it's us men who actually wanna be there,
actually wanna be fathers, like, are the ones that suffer… I feel like
I'm, I'm just guilty by association.” – 31 year old father of 3

“But at the same time, to place a willing father on child
support because you're mad or because you have vengeance
towards that person- it can change a man's life” – 25 year old father of 2
“[the judge] was saying like the week, the weekends are like
the bonding time, y'know what I mean, with the child, and the
father shouldn't be the only one that's getting the bonding time.
Like, the mother should be getting bonding time too. And I'm like,
‘she can get bonding time during the week’, you understand what
I'm saying? With all this money that I'm kickin' out…Can I pay for
more time?” - 31 year old father of 3

“It makes it so it’s difficult to, for the dad to fight the support and
try to build a relationship with your child.” -Child Support System Official



“You have to try to get a week’s worth of time into a weekend
…And y’know what I mean, your regular every day thing, which it
what the custodial parent get, the visiting parent doesn’t get that. Its
always well can, let’s go to the park, let’s go to the movie, let’s go to,
so then that’s additional expense. And if you don’t have that you feel,
um, inadequate as a parent visiting with your child.” -Child Support
System Official


Incarceration was closely linked to feelings of punishment, as we have
a punitive criminal justice system in America, but there were repeated ideas of jail
sentences being counterproductive to what should be the overall goal of the child
support system. When noncustodial parents were incarcerated they were unable to
work towards paying support order and arrearages and were additionally
disadvantaged upon release as their criminal record made securing well paid
employment more difficult.
There was also a clear pattern in both interviews with parents involved
in the system and officials working within child support and related systems that
custodial parents had more assistance and a better understanding of the system
than their noncustodial counterparts. There were also frequent sentiments of
mothers filing support order after noncustodial fathers had upset them in some way,
even at times to the detriment of the children as orders were lower monetarily than
prior in-kind support had been.
Finally there was evidence of involvement in the system impacting
noncustodial parents ability to be involved with their children both financially and
emotionally. The financial drain of paying support combined with limited time with
their children in which they were expected to do costly activities made fathers feel
inadequate and left children confused and distressed. This took an emotional toll
on the entire family unit as fathers would sometimes attempt to avoid time with their
children as they understood the attached financial drain and children’s inability to
understand their lack of funds.


I would like to thank my primary investigator Brittany Battle for her support and
encouragement to explore our own passions within this project this year. I would also
like to thank Professor Paul McLean for overseeing the project and my fellow
research assistant Laura Smith for her help with completing this project.

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