Poor 'Deadbeat' Dads May Fall Into No Job-Jail Trap
Issue underscores what Walter Scott's family says happened in his case
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 20, 2015 12:40 PM CDT
In this April 8, 2015, photo, Anthony Scott holds an undated photo that shows himself, center, and his brothers Walter Scott, left, and Rodney Scott, right.   (AP Photo/Scott Family)

(Newser) – The friend in the car with Walter Scott right before Scott's police-shooting death on April 4 says he'll "never know why he ran." But Scott's family says it's because he was afraid of being thrown in jail again for not paying child support, according to the New York Times—and based on the Times' report, he may have had ample reason for that fear. The paper notes challenges faced by supposed "deadbeat" dads who are actually living in poverty, running up their support tabs because they couldn't afford them in the first place, then getting thrown in jail and losing their jobs—all while the debt builds. "Parents who are truly destitute go to jail over and over again for child support debt simply because they're poor," a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights tells the Times. Part of the problem right from the start: Support orders are often crafted using not a parent's actual income, but what's called "imputed" income, which gauges how much the parent would earn at a full-time job that made minimum wage.

Indeed, a 2007 Urban Institute study cited by the Times notes that 70% of child support debt in nine states was owed by individuals who reported $10,000 or less in income (some didn't report any income). The commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement tells the Times that jail time was originally intended for people purposely hiding funds—not parents who couldn't afford the payments. Even a Supreme Court ruling from 2011 meant to prevent this from happening can prove futile, because some defendants can't afford lawyers to help them out, advocates say. In Scott's case, it was a cycle he apparently couldn't break. In a 2003 article on a new program in the Post and Courier, Scott noted he had enrolled in the program, meant to help dads catch up on payments, and voluntarily turned himself in for more jail time. "This whole time in jail, my child support is still going up," he said at the time. "I said, 'Man, you got four kids depending on you. … You got to get it together."