For a lot of households, Mississippi’s little one help enforcement program proves nonsensical

BY ANNA WOLFE | DEC. 30, 2020

Editor’s Note: This story is part three of a series that explores Mississippi’s child support program. Read the other stories here.

Candace McNeil, a mother of two from Olive Branch, said she received payments for only 25 cents through the Mississippi Child Support Enforcement Program.

The same program resulted in a Greenville father losing his driver’s license, an especially brutal punishment for someone who makes a living driving trucks.

Dowayne Charlot, who now lives in Louisiana, rode his bike in and out of jail for a decade after piling up his child’s debt and ending up in jail Today’s Mississippi Debtor’s Prison.

The child benefit enforcement program sounds great in theory, but the ramifications are nonsensical to many families in Mississippi.

Since, in the 1970s, when the public child benefit system began, welfare was mostly for poor single mothers, the idea was that if states could hold fathers accountable for their children, states could exonerate the government from providing for those families.

“I am for people who pay their keep. But I also want you to understand that there is a real humanistic side of me who is unable to pay my child support, ”said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, who has filed several unsuccessful bills to order Improve guidelines under the child support program to be friendly to low-income Mississippians. “I just had a real problem with inhuman reactions to humane situations.”

The child benefit system, one of the largest social programs in the country, has functioned like a debt collection agency at times, supported by law enforcement mechanisms. However, in recent years it has been revised and a growing number of national authorities and policy makers have recognized that a punitive approach to parenting does not produce better results.

This is especially true of the poorest state in the country, although Mississippi has not fully implemented changes to its child support guidelines to ensure needy fathers are not incarcerated, a practice the US Supreme Court banned in 2011.

“Higher orders and stricter enforcement do not increase collections if the obstacle to payment is poverty,” said Vicki Turetsky, former commissioner for the Federal Office of Child Support from 2009 to 2016, in one 2019 report.

In the decades since its inception, the child support program has been plagued by distorted stereotypes of dead fathers and prodigal mothers. There are tales of the low-income single mother struggling to force a father to pony or the working father facing a bruised paycheck and cruel consequences for non-compliance.

Some custody parents, usually mothers, in Mississippi are forced into the program when trying to apply for assistance – – In this case, either the child support or the amount of support is usually reduced. While the states have the option, Mississippi retains any child support paid to families in order to repay itself for any monetary assistance given to the family.

“I think it’s supposed to keep it antagonistic,” said McNeil, mother of two, of the program.

Because the agency department is often counterintuitive and imposes blanket rules on the complex, unique lives of Mississippi families, lawyers say both sides suffer.

“It’s like eating the seed,” said Oleta Fitzgerald, longtime director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office. “While the goal is to get the non-caring parents to invest in the child and the life of a child they brought into the world, the result is that the children are not getting what they need to to do better in old age. ”

It is virtually impossible to generalize the circumstances of the nearly 800,000 people across the state who are on the program, which poses a challenge to program operators who know the service must include consistency.

“You still need to run a program without redesigning the program every time someone walks to the help desk window,” said Rob Wells, owner of YoungWilliams, the government’s child maintenance enforcement contractor. “Because if you do that, you don’t even have a program.”

Before McNeil joined the state system in 2015, when her ex-husband was still paying consistently, she said, “It was just like: Ok, we have these children. You have needs. Open the mailbox, there’s a check. You put it on the bench. You take care of everything. “

“But with the enforcement of child benefits, it’s like you’ve invited someone into your home, which creates a lot of additional conflict,” said McNeil.

Since the court handed her case to the Mississippi Human Services division, she has received inconsistent, late, and sometimes nonsensical payments of pocket money from the father of her two children. Without a portal to track the funds in, it is almost impossible for her to know how much she is receiving each month and how much she owes.

McNeil, a freelance administrator, eventually had to apply for grocery services, which required her to continue on the program. Most states do not have this policy.

“Sometimes you are forced into poverty and there is such a cycle,” said McNeil. “I just want to be done. It feels like a prison. “

If people don’t think the state is aggressive enough to persecute absent fathers, it may be because they don’t know what the surgery actually involves.

“There’s a big myth there,” Lyndsy Irwin, former director of the state’s child support program, told Mississippi Today in a 2019 interview. “I think a lot of our families think we have investigators who like to go out … we don’t have such resources. “

If a mother doesn’t think she’s getting as much support as she deserves, Wells said, “The question becomes, at what level are we going to enforce the order against the guy?”

In recent years, the public program has slowed the speed and frequency with which it files complaints of civil contempt against non-paying parents.

“The guy may not do more than part-time and cut grass wages,” Wells said. “Where is the level where we say stop?”

McNeil also said she knows men who are barely able to survive on the remains of their paychecks after child support was taken out. Nowhere can this be truer than in Mississippi, where a quite high average monthly alimony for a state with one of the lowest and the second lowest wages Activity rate in the nation for men.

Only 74% of men ages 20 to 64 in the state are employed or looking for work. The state has that too third highest incarceration rate in the nation. Mississippi must soon change its program guidelines so that men in prison are not considered “voluntarily unemployed,” officials told Mississippi Today, but the practice continues to this day.

Hines, the agent, recalled the story of the Greenville father whose maintenance debts were amassed while in prison. When he got out, Hines said the state suspended his driver’s license for failing to pay. This affected the truck driver’s job prospects and only made it harder for him to earn the money he needed to support his children.

“He had never missed a payment before he went to jail,” said Hines.

Police officers captured Charlot, who was prosecuted for failure to pay child support in 2005, a decade after his first conviction in Pike County. Though he claims to have paid more than $ 20,000 in debt by then, a judge ordered Charlot to live in a restitution center, a modern debt prison, while he needed enough money to do low-wage jobs which law enforcement officers placed him. Overall, he said he had been jailed for a total of five years for the crime.

“Mississippi state fucked me right out,” Charlot said. “I paid $ 50,000 for kids I’ve never seen in my life.”

Charlot’s case may be extreme, but between 2016 and 2018 at least 185 Mississippians visited the court on the same charges. This was the result of an analysis by Mississippi Today using data from the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts.

Whether a parent appears in court on a criminal charge, a complaint of civil contempt by the Department of Human Services, or even a change in a support order, the judges are free to decide what to do with them.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for it,” said McNeil. “It’s like tornadoes. What makes a tornado land here and skip this house? “

Turetsky, the former federal commissioner, envisioned a completely different approach. While Mississippi is lagging behind, states have introduced more humane guidelines as part of their child welfare programs so the government doesn’t dig parents into a bigger hole.

However, experts acknowledge that when tough enforcement measures are watered down, something must take their place to ensure mothers are not left in the lurch.

“Sometimes the most effective strategy for increasing support for a child is to associate a father with a job,” Turetsky wrote in one decades old report, The addition of child benefit programs should “step in early to address the underlying reasons for non-support – be it unemployment, parental conflict or withdrawal”.

In 2010, Mississippi’s outdated child support enforcement system barely did the minimum to move cases forward. But now that Wells’ company has got the gears of the program going, the state has a chance to re-imagine what child support is like as a social program.

“In order for both parents to be successful, they both have to communicate with us. But if they feel like they’re being perceived as dead parents, they won’t be very willing to communicate with the state, ”said Irwin, the former program director. “I think it’s really important to try to change the perspective of the program.”

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