Many readers weighed in on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on violent video games this week. The controversial ruling that California’s attempt to prohibit renting or selling violent games to minors violated free speech has inspired a spirited debate about parental and industry responsibility.
But the court also issued another ruling this term that will affect millions of families, even if it has received less public attention.
The justices ruled in a 5 to 4 decision (PDF) to uphold the appeal of Michael Turner, a father who had been jailed for a year because he did not — he said could not — pay the nearly $6,000 in child support payments he owed. The court decided that Turner’s incarceration violated the due process clause because he had not been told that his ability to pay was crucial to the case and the court never determined whether Turner could, in fact, make his child support obligations.
The Turner case addressed one of the biggest problems in the national child support enforcement program. Though most sentient adults agree parents need to meet their child support obligations, enforcement rules often don’t recognize the reality of financial situations.
A noncustodial parent might have lost a job, as millions did in the recession, but it’s doubtful his or her payment schedule changed at all. It can be a slippery slope from provider to deadbeat.
Elaine Sorensen, a scholar at the Urban Institute, is a leading expert on child support, and her work was mentioned by both sides in the Supreme Court case. Earlier, she had laid out for me how the child support system could be fairer to the more than 17 million children dependent on it. (That’s not a typo. Seventeen million children.)
She said a better approach would address the two main problems: how a court evaluates the financial status of support-payers and how the court can make sure support is paid.
The first would involve the court reevaluating financial status each time a case reaches the court for nonpayment. “The problem for a lot of these people is that they’re in and out of the workforce,” Sorensen said.
Amazingly, this is not now done.
The second fix would come in how a court penalizes those who don’t pay. Many penalties, such as incarceration, are so draconian that they actually prevent parents from making payments. For the most egregious cases, Sorensen said, the threat of jail may be needed (which is what Turner’s ex-wife had said).
In many other cases, though, Sorensen thinks the better approach is to rely more on mandated employment programs.
Too pie in the sky? Not necessarily.
Sorensen said these programs can “smoke out” those who have jobs and are lying to avoid paying child support since they require showing up and participation.
Such court-ordered employment programs are in place in many states, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District. “These programs cost a little money,” Sorensen said, “but research shows that they can be a lot cheaper than incarcerating somebody.”
Does Sorensen think the Supreme Court’s ruling will lead to major changes?
“I think that the ruling could lead to better evaluations of a provider’s ability to pay, but I think that will depend, in part, on the extent to which the federal government provides guidance to states on this matter,” she wrote me in an e-mail this week.
“The decision is not entirely clear when a court can incarcerate an indigent parent for non-payment of child support. Without clearer guidance on this issue, courts will continue to vary widely on when they incarcerate parents.”