Breaking fathers out of the child-support-to-prison pipeline

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Shadow from the lattice on dollar bills. The concept of prison, the penalty for money laundering, theft, crime and the penalty for tax evasion.

(NewsNation) — Fathers newly released from prison often find themselves in danger of returning if they can’t make their child support payments, while also facing considerable debt and no immediate form of steady income.

In Missouri, a program called Empowering Dads to Gain Employment (EDGE) is helping these fathers to get back on track This includes helping them find jobs, cover up to $10,000 in training expenses and provide transportation.

“The payments are so high, they can’t afford to (pay),” said Ben Bostic, EDGE program coordinator. “If they have got to pay rent, the last thing they want is $600 coming out of their (paycheck) every month going somewhere else.”

Less than half of custodial parents report receiving at least some of their child support payments, and 30% of children who rely on child support live in poverty.

Employment specialists act as a combined mentor, job recruiter and case worker. They meet weekly with the parents for three to six months and give interview advice, help place them in jobs offered by local employers, and refer them to housing, mental health or job training services if needed.

Employment specialist Ernest Kamanga-Sollo (who goes by Sollo) focuses on supportive relationships with the parents, imparting the wisdom he gathered during 35 years of teaching and the discipline he learned from his grandfather and uncles before immigrating from Tanzania. 

“If they’ve been incarcerated for a long time, when they come out, they don’t know how to talk to employers,” Sollo said. “I am the bridging in between.”

He also has first-hand experience. After losing his business due to the pandemic, he struggled to pay child support payments — and found relief through EDGE.

Sollo estimates 90% of his clients have previously been in prison — a major barrier to finding work.

Some clients come into contact with EDGE through other services, like rental assistance, offered through their parent organization, the Community Partnership of Southeast Missouri.

Employment specialists will also spend time at child support court, and talk to the single dads who’ve had judgements against them in. And increasingly often, parents refer their friends who also need debt relief, Bostic said.

“We have seen these guys get maybe their first haircut in 10 years to get ready for the job interview,” he said. “And then once they get it, a lot of times, they’re told, ‘Well, hey, you need to have black non-slip shoes, and we need a copy of your driver’s license and your social security card. … These people may not have any of those things.”

Of 202 people enrolled in the past year, 62% found jobs within the goal of 90 days. Of those, about 60% still had jobs six months later, Bostic said.

Bostic points to the relationship EDGE workers develop with their clients as key to the success of the program, which has expanded to 11 counties in Missouri.

Payment to prison cycle

Child support debt often becomes a punitive cycle, particularly if the father is in prison, without stable housing or has a low-paying job, according to Lynne Haney, author of “Prisons of Debt.”

The noncustodial parent may be sent back to prison for debt they didn’t even know they had — or feel so overwhelmed they opt out of paying entirely.

Nonsupport is the 10th most common reason for new prison sentences in Missouri, reports the Columbia Missourian.

That’s important because child support payments make up to 40% of family income, census data shows and are connected to lower child poverty and better education. Yet having a parent in prison can be detrimental, leading to “profound and complex threats to their emotional, physical, educational and financial well-being.” 

Haney interviewed 145 fathers currently or previously incarcerated with child support debt for her book, she found they left prison with an average of $36,000 in debt, much of it made up of missed child support payments.

“Seventy percent of child support debt in the United States is owed by parents who make less than $10,000 a year,” Haney said. “If you were to create a system designed to entrap parents in cycles, almost inescapable cycles of debt and punishment, it would be the child support system the way it is currently.” 

That’s why rare programs like EDGE are so important. Still, it can be difficult for their clients to overcome other factors hindering their employment, such as substance abuse disorder or violent pasts.

Currently, the lack of affordable housing and high inflation are making it even more difficult to live off of the low-wage jobs they often qualify for.

“What we do have here is kind of a Band-Aid. And it works for some, but it doesn’t work for most,” Bostic said. “What (the) numbers tell me is we have a lot of people looking for help, but we can’t help all of them.”

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