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Locking up parents for not paying child support can be a modern-day ‘debtor’s prison’

There's a seismic shift going on in Virginia: treating parents who owe child support as more than just deadbeats.

Dwayne Ferebee, right, plays with his son, Dwayne Jr., at home in Virginia Beach, Va., after finishing work as a plumber’s helper on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. His fiance, Cara Ray, works on her computer. Ferebee is working through a Virginia program called Club Reinvent, which placed him in the job to help him pay his child support rather than go to jail. (Photo by Jay Westcott/For The Washington Post)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Dwayne Ferebee, 36, father of four, has been sent to jail four times over the past 12 years on civil contempt charges for failure to pay his court-ordered child support. The first two times, he spent a couple months behind bars until his mom came up with the $3,000 the judge told him he had to pay. The third go-around, he stayed in jail six of the maximum 12-month sentence before he could scrape together the money. The fourth, he had to wait until his fiancée received her tax refund. All told, he spent about a year locked up.

Ferebee, a high school dropout,  had a series of run-in with the law and ended up with a felony. You know the formula by now. Lack of education plus felony record equals poverty. Unless you can work two jobs. Which child support enforcement and the court told him to do. “And when am I supposed to see my kids?” he asked.

“All I was saying was, ‘Give me an opportunity instead of throwing me in jail because that just puts me further behind in child support,'” Ferebee says. “Let me find work so I can earn money.’”

This year, Ferebee was headed to jail a fifth time for failure to pay child support. But finally there may be an alternative.

A slow-moving but seismic shift is taking hold in Virginia’s child support enforcement community of judges and lawyers and case managers. That shift, still underway, has seen the rise of new partnerships between child support enforcement, the courts, social service agencies and fatherhood programs seeking to figure out what’s keeping parents from paying the child support they owe. And then — this is the seismic part — helping those parents  address their issues instead of locking them up. The state’s Intensive Case Monitoring Program joins a national movement nearly a decade in the making in which problem-solving measures in child support enforcement have been replacing punitive ones.

As they say in child support, there is a difference between deadbeat and dead-broke, and discerning it is key. Civil contempt is meant to coerce a parent to pay and get out of jail, says Craig Burshem, the director of Virginia’s Department of Social Services Division of Child Support Enforcement. “It’s not meant to be a debtor’s prison.”

What began as a pilot program in 2008 in four courts has now expanded to 31 courts throughout the commonwealth. Child support enforcement workers are reaching out to employers. trying to help parents facing jail find jobs and other support they need – this, in a state that not long ago sought to publicly shame fathers who owed child support by putting their names, faces and money owed in newspapers. Virginia has also begun working with fathers — and mothers — before they leave prison and has just updated the formula that determines how monthly payments are set.

“The change is huge,” says Brian Hawkins, who runs the Virginia Beach Department of Social Services’ Fathers in Training program. He remembers being at a meeting during which Burshem said the state needed to offer support to men in such a way that strengthens, not weakens, their relationship with their children. “Then,” Hawkins remembers Burshem saying, “they will put their money where their hearts are.”   

“It blew me away,” Hawkins says. “It was a completely new approach of looking at men as they are, fathers who care about their children.”

Jail time is a last resort. It comes after various administrative measures to extract payment: wage garnishment, suspension of driver’s license, liens, freezing of bank accounts, intercepting tax refunds – what Ferebee calls “taking your whole life and putting it on hold until you pay.” Of the 320,000 child support enforcement cases in Virginia last year, only about 6,000 ended with jail sentences, according to the state’s Division of Child Support Enforcement. Nearly all of what are called noncustodial parents are men, but about 10 percent are women.

As tends to be the case nationally, most parents who end up facing jail sentences tend to be like Ferebee: low-income fathers, many with high school diplomas or less, many with felony records.

Last year, Hawkins, in collaboration with child support enforcement, launched Club Reinvent, a weekly group for men who have been court-ordered into case monitoring instead of jail. It offers a mix of practical guidance and tips on job hunting, but also counseling and group discussion to help the men become better fathers to their children beyond the dollars owed.

“They’ve thought about what it feels like not to be able to buy school clothes for their children,” Hawkins says. “They’ve thought about how other people see them. . . . They cry in there. They’ve gone back to how they were deserted by their own fathers and they are saying to themselves, ‘What kind of father can I really be?’

Hawkins says 85 out of the 150 or so men who have come through Club Reinvent have found work. According to the July 2014 data from the state’s Division of Child Support Enforcement, 2,736 parents have been enrolled in intensive case monitoring. More than a thousand were dropped because they failed to meet its requirements, which include consistent child support payments, no matter how small, and proof they’re looking for work. More than a thousand have graduated. The state has collected almost $11 million dollars through the program. The average monthly payment per graduate was $75 before enrolling in the program and $185 after graduation. The average monthly child support they owe is $216.

Nationally, research suggests that where innovative problem-solving practices have been tried, parents who don’t have custody of their children pay more of what they owe, more consistently, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, which is housed within the Department of Health and Human Services,

This summer, Ferebee was headed to jail a fifth time when Deidre Bailey, a child support enforcement specialist, intercepted him. He’d been incarcerated in 2007 on another charge, and after 16 months in jail, was $28,000 in arrears. He’d been working as janitor, but still owed thousands.

Child support continues to accrue even while you’re locked up because the state considers incarceration, no matter the circumstance, voluntary unemployment. Why should your kids receive less financial support when you get out because you made a bad choice, goes the thinking.

“I was trying to pay what I could, but even when I had a job, my child support was so outrageous,” he says. “I was making $1,200 a month and paying out $800 a month in child support. How am I going to live?”

Bailey saw in Ferebee something she looks for: an effort to pay and to look for work.

“And if they show effort, we can help them. . . This is not just about someone’s job. It’s about someone’s life.”

Ferebee went to Club Reinvent, which he says helped him not only with job search tips and skills but in rebuilding his sense of self-worth. With Bailey’s help, he says, a plumbing company hired him three months ago as a helper.

A month ago, he says, his boss gave him a dollar an hour raise to $10. His child support payments come right out of his check.