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‘The Silent Return Of Debtors’ Prison’: Poor Parents Face Jail Time For Failing To Pay Back The State For Child Support

The Alachua County Family and Civil Justice Center held in-person child support hearings for the first time since COVID on July 28, 2021. The hearing officer is bracing for a spike in child support cases like he saw after the 2008 recession. That makes enforcement — and its effectiveness — a more relevant question than ever. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)
The Alachua County Family and Civil Justice Center held in-person child support hearings for the first time since COVID on July 28, 2021. The hearing officer is bracing for a spike in child support cases like he saw after the 2008 recession. That makes enforcement — and its effectiveness — a more relevant question than ever. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

How Florida child support enforcement creates ‘a perfect storm of debt for disadvantaged parents’ and nine changes that could help them weather it

Samuel Stafford, who presides over child support hearings in Alachua and Levy Counties, began court in late July with a warning:

“There is absolutely no place in a court of law, especially pro se, for logic and common sense.”

Pro se litigants represent themselves. Public defenders are not provided for civil cases.

By the day’s end, Stafford would tell a mother who said she was homeless to pay $100 within 35 days or face a month in jail.

The docket was a revolving door of custodial and noncustodial parents attempting to navigate a complex judicial system that uses fines and fees, license suspensions and jail time to enforce payment on child support debt — debt that usually accrues because of an inability to pay.

In court, Stafford cracks jokes to break the tension. He knocks on the pandemic plexiglass and lets them know it’s not bulletproof. He never forgets a face and lets returning parents know he remembers them. He gives parenting advice and asks how the kids are doing.

Though he can’t give legal guidance, he tells litigants to listen carefully to the other cases. He said he does his best to make payment amounts fair.

But as he tells them again and again, “The law is the law.”

Florida’s child support enforcement policies are particularly strict, but the state is not alone in using these tactics, or in the problems they create.

National child support debt has increased tenfold over the past 30 years to over $115 billion, more than 25% of which is unpaid interest. Florida accounts for more than $6 billion of that. The increased debt has largely fallen on poor families.

Reform proponents say the system traps the poorest noncustodial parents in escalating cycles of debt that are nearly impossible to escape, without actually increasing the amount of support received by the custodial parent. 

With the economic struggles COVID has caused, Stafford is bracing for a spike in child support cases in the coming months like he saw after the 2008 recession. That makes enforcement — and its consequences — more relevant than ever.

According to some who work inside the system and some who study it, simple policy changes could make it more effective and equitable.

Stafford’s warning would be vividly illustrated by six of the day’s hearings at the Alachua County Family and Civil Justice Center.

Editor’s note: Litigants’ names are omitted to respect the sensitivity of their situation. Court dialogue has been condensed for clarity. Those representing themselves in child support cases in the Eighth Judicial Circuit can call 352-548-3781 or email to schedule an appointment for guidance.

Case 1: Surprise! You owe $53,000.

The parents were confused. They wanted the court to erase the more than $53,000 plus interest of support debt owed by the father, of which they had only recently become aware.

The mother said she went to the child support office in 2015 to cancel the support obligation and assumed it was over. They had reconciled and lived together again. He was on her food stamps. But the support obligation didn’t actually end until 2019.

“Although both of you all are very young, is anything free in life?” Stafford asked.

“No,” she said.

The money was not owed to her, but to pay back the state for the benefits she had received while the support order was in place, a policy known as “welfare payback.”

The father said when he worked at Applebee’s, the support was automatically taken from his paycheck. At the jobs that followed, it stopped being garnished, so he assumed it had ended.

“This just came up out of nowhere, five years later, that I’m in arrears $53,000.”

Stafford told the father the state stopped garnishing his pay because he hadn’t informed the court of his new employment.

“I’m just a little confused,” the mother sighed. “I mean, I get it. I’m just saying we live together, we pay bills together, things like that, and I —”

“What did I say to all of you all about the law?” Stafford asked.

The parents stammered attempted answers.

“What I said was logic does not exist. It defies common sense.”

Welfare payback

Lynne Haney is the director of the law and society undergraduate program at New York University. She has studied the effects of child support debt on incarcerated men for eight years and helped inform recent child support reform efforts in California. She calls current child support enforcement policies “a perfect storm of debt for disadvantaged parents.”

“It’s a system you would create to capture poverty and not neglect or irresponsibility,” Haney said. 

Of the 125 fathers she interviewed about their child support, nearly all believed it was their responsibility to pay. Haney said it’s an inaccurate stereotype that the majority of those who owe support are “deadbeat dads.”

Most child support debt low-income parents accrue is not to the custodial parent or child but to the government. The Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 requires mothers to give their rights to child support payments to the state if they go on public assistance. The child support becomes welfare payback.

Some states give some of that back to families through “pass-throughs,” but Florida does not. In Florida, if the custodial parent has received public assistance, when the noncustodial parent pays on the owed amount, the child doesn’t receive any of it.

This is why Haney prefers to call it “support debt” in these instances rather than “child support.”

“The word child is sort of a moral overlay so we don’t question the nature of the debt,” Haney said.

Stafford said the efficiency of support debt collection determines how much funding gets recirculated into the state for welfare.

“It isn’t altruism, so to speak, that this whole child support program statewide is set up, or in any state,” Stafford said. “It’s unfortunately dollars and cents.

“The human touch, the empathy, the flexibility that enters into child support is determined by the members of the bench.”

Stafford has discretion over things like purge and enforcement amounts and whether or not to find someone in contempt, but he has to operate within the law.

Current federal law forbids retroactive forgiveness of child support debt. In Florida, when child support is established, it can also be applied retroactively for the preceding 24 months, under what Stafford called “the legal fiction” that the noncustodial parent should have been paying the whole time.

“So you start out in a hole,” Stafford said, “and if you miss any payments, for whatever reason, that hole gets deeper.”

Case 2: Social media detective

The mother was dressed in blue scrubs, and she was over it.

The father, who had not shown up to the hearing, owed her over $21,000 plus interest in child support. The state couldn’t enforce the amount owed because they couldn’t locate him, she said, and because he regularly provided doctors’ notes saying he was unable to work.

But she saw on social media that he created a business pressure washing and cutting down trees, and instead of using the money to support their child, he was taking trips to California and New York.

“And I don’t care about him taking trips, but take care of your son as well,” she said. “I bust my butt, work and school, to take care of my son.”

The entire year, she had only received one payment of $69, when he was on work release from jail earlier this summer.

She wanted the court to find him in contempt. 

“I come to your court every year, once a year, because that’s the only time I receive payment from [him] is when I bring him to court.”

Stafford said the court couldn’t find him in contempt because he was currently incarcerated, but recommended she try again when he was released.

During the more than a dozen hearings on the day’s schedule, she was the only custodial parent asking for enforcement of child support.

When the storm becomes a tsunami

Stafford remembers the exact date he began presiding over child support cases: Jan. 7, 1990.

That first day, he found someone in contempt, and they panicked. They ran out of the courtroom and down the stairs before the deputies subdued them.

Stafford was tapped to establish a circuit-wide program for child support cases that judicial hearing officers would preside over and give their recommendations to circuit judges — an accommodation that became necessary as child support cases ballooned.

Child support was launched in 1975 following the passage of no-fault divorce legislation. The idea was to recreate the family system that existed before the divorce, typically granting the mother custody and using wages from the father to support the children. At the time, there were very few children born out of marriage.

Federal welfare reforms in the mid-90s made child support guidelines more specific and created penalties for states that did not effectively collect on support orders.

Over the decades, the proportion of children born to unmarried parents grew to about 40%, women entered the workforce in droves and education and income disparities between fathers widened dramatically.

Stafford said the parents he sees in his courtroom are younger and younger, with less education and work experience.

The families entering the child support system now are not what it was designed to accommodate.

Stafford said he and his colleagues in child support enforcement are trying to stem the tide of people getting deeper into the system, especially the criminal side, by making sure children are supported.

“If young people, children, aren’t sufficiently cared for, loved, validated, supported and their basic necessities aren’t met,” Stafford said, “then that creates an environment where they can more easily go off track.

Both those working inside the system and those working to reform it generally agree there is a need for some mechanism to enforce child support payments, even if they don’t agree on what that mechanism should be.

Haney said the “perfect storm” of child support debt “becomes a tsunami for incarcerated parents.”

The majority of people in prison are parents of minor children and almost half of those have support orders. In one study on incarcerated fathers, most didn’t know they had an open child support order, let alone that they could ask to have it modified.

Haney said while the average child support debt of a poor person is $10,000, in her sample of incarcerated fathers it was $36,500. Some owed up to $500,000.

Florida does not consider incarceration an acceptable reason to stop paying child support, but as “voluntary unemployment,” despite the inability to keep earning regular wages behind bars. Commissary funds and prison wages, for which the state minimum is set at well under a dollar per hour, can even be seized for meager payments towards an ever-increasing debt that continues to accrue interest and court fees.

Thirty percent of fathers with support orders released from prison rank help with the support debt as their most urgent need, above obtaining work and housing.

Much of this debt is considered uncollectible, but it continues to be enforced.

Case 3: Roofing in the summer

The father owed the state almost $87,000 plus interest in support debt and nearly a thousand in old court costs. His children were grown and lived on their own.

He never received his first COVID stimulus check; it was intercepted by the state as welfare payback. He had no driver’s license and three other support cases. He was supposed to pay $700 a month on this one, and the state wanted at least one month’s payment within 30 days. 

“Have you done anything to try to get yourself back in the court to have it modified?” Stafford asked him.

“No sir, I didn’t actually know. I don’t know how to go about doing that,” he said.

“Most people don’t,” Stafford said. “How far in school did you get?”

“Until my 11th grade year.”

Stafford cut the enforcement amount the state was asking for in half and added a way for the father to get his monthly payment reduced.

“From experience,” Stafford said, “roofing in the summer is very, very demanding. How old are you sir?”

“46,” he said.

Stafford paused. The courtroom was left in silence to imagine what it would be like to crouch over a rooftop in the heat at 46 because you had to pay on a debt that would never go away. Because the alternative was jail.

Deadbeat or dead broke?

According to the most recent data available, about 70% of child support debt is owed by parents who report making $10,000 or less per year. The majority of parents with more than $100,000 in child support debt have no reported income at all.

It’s possible to ask the court to adjust your monthly payments lower, but Stafford said it’s rarely granted because as children grow, their costs go up, not down, and unemployment is seen as temporary.

In Haney’s Florida sample of 50 men who were incarcerated, only two were successful in getting their amounts modified. At the time she interviewed them, none of them knew it was even an option.

If a noncustodial parent doesn’t provide income documentation or doesn’t show up to court, which is frequently the case for incarcerated fathers, the court can “impute income” to them, often defaulting to minimum wage to decide how much they can pay.

In Florida, the court can also assume the statewide median income of nearly $28,000. Stafford considers this a “sneaky approach” and tries to dissuade the state from using it, since median income varies widely between different areas of the state.

Gainesville’s median individual income is about $20,500. The median income of Black households in Alachua County is about half that of white households.

Case 4: The purge

The father owed under $6,000 in this case, though he had other child support orders as well. 

His case was being heard over Zoom. He was sitting in the passenger seat of a car, mopping his forehead with a towel. A little girl popped out from the back seat and waved to screen: “Hiiiiii!”

He did landscaping off and on and said he was trying to find full-time work. The only payment he made this year was $300.

“What was that for?” Stafford asked. “Do you remember?”

“I was in jail, incarcerated for child support.”

“It was a reduced purge. Please, you got to get back on track man,” Stafford said. “. . . We don’t want to have to go back to jail.”

“Does [he] have a valid driver’s license?” Stafford asked the state’s revenue specialist.

“No, sir, it was revoked.”

The key to the jail cell

“The phrase that’s grown up in the case law is: The person who is found in contempt always has the key to the jail cell, and that is in the form of a purge,” Stafford said.

The purge is supposed to be set at an amount that the person is able to pay.

Everything a parent owns or benefits from can be considered an asset when determining that amount — clothes, electronics, furniture, vehicles. Even the shoes on their feet. When the state wants the court to find someone in contempt, they can point to the fact that the parent didn’t sell these items to pay the debt.

Unlike for bail amounts, there is no bonding out of a purge. Purges must be paid in full.

Stafford said determining the purge amount is an art, not a science.

Haney said that’s part of the problem. Purge amounts are entirely up to the discretion of the judge in Florida and vary widely.

Haney said orders of contempt, especially in Florida, aren’t related to the size of the debt but to more nebulous factors like compliance and attitude.

“In Florida, it’s often used as a way of simply punishing parents that judges don’t like,” she said.

In Haney’s Florida sample, many men said they’d never considered crime until faced with a purge amount.

They weighed “the certainty of that jail time versus the uncertainty of selling some drugs, doing a robbery to get the money, and maybe they’ll be arrested and maybe they won’t,” she said.

Parents can also go to jail for driving on licenses that were suspended for failure to pay support. Even if they were driving to work to attempt to pay it. Even if they were never aware of the suspension because their address on record was outdated. Professional licenses can also be suspended.

Jailed child support debtors are more likely to be poor, unemployed and African American or Hispanic, in what one researcher called a “silent return of debtor’s prison.” One study found that 5% of all fathers and 15% of all African American fathers had been jailed for child support.

Haney said using jail and purge amounts to enforce child support has wide-reaching negative ripple effects:

Financially, it can cause job and housing loss. Haney’s research found that child support enforcement at the state level, especially license suspensions and civil contempt, is associated with lower employment of fathers. Even the threat of incarceration is correlated with a decline in wages.

Legally, if re-arrest is a condition of parole for a previous incarceration, it can open up old cases. It can jeopardize eligibility for halfway houses and rehab programs. The association between incarceration for support debt and recidivism is strong, and even stronger for Black fathers.

Relationally, it can strain any existing familial networks of support, which are key in preventing recidivism. Haney found fathers often turn to family, even to their children, to make payments and avoid enforcement, which can wear down the relationships.

Walter Scott was running from police at a traffic stop in 2015 when they shot and killed him. He had an arrest warrant for child support debt.

“The ‘underground dynamic’ is a way of capturing all these cascading effects,” Haney said. In other words, parents who don’t see a way to catch up on payments will try to go off radar as a survival strategy.

The men she interviewed often turned to underground or informal work. They kept no bank accounts and had no credit. They would disengage from the family networks they needed the most, sometimes including the child.

This cycle reinforces the stereotype of “deadbeat dads,” according to Haney.

“And many times they aren’t consistent because they’re not consistent,” Haney said of the fathers. “But many times they aren’t consistent because we’ve created a system that doesn’t let them be consistent.”

Case 5: ‘Just ask for Ms. Brown’

The father did construction but relied on Craigslist and word of mouth to find work and had had no luck since COVID. His license had been revoked for failure to pay child support. His debt was nearly $12,000 plus interest.

The mother was pleading with Stafford to remove the father’s child support obligation.

“He is the only one that has ever helped me, regardless of whether we’ve been together or not,” she said. “[He’s] actually stepped up and been a father to my other two kids with the love of his heart. And I’m absolutely pleased to take him off of child support.”

Stafford explained that couldn’t be done during the current hearing. They needed to request another hearing to suspend support.

She didn’t understand.

“If you call the office,” Stafford’s assistant Nancy Brown-Williford cut in, “I can explain to you what he’s saying. He can’t give you legal advice, but I can give you a little bit more information. Call the courthouse and just ask for Ms. Brown, OK?”

‘When a machine is coming after you, you can’t just sit there.’

“It’s not like child support is a secret society,” Brown-Williford said.

She’s been working with Stafford for 13 years. Though she believes in the work they do, her voice sounds weary when she talks about enforcement. She wishes noncustodial parents would come to them sooner. Why do they wait until there’s a motion for contempt?

“When a machine is coming after you — the Department of Revenue — you can’t just sit there. You have to act.”

She thinks noncustodial parents don’t come to them for help because they’re “fearful it’s a setup.”

“You have rights, too,” she wants to tell them.

She worries that they don’t update their address and don’t receive materials and notices from the court. Or if they do, they don’t read them — or can’t read them.

Their office holds clinics to teach parents how to navigate the system. They post fliers across town. Always, they point them to the Self-Help Center on the fourth floor.

The Self-Help Center was started in 2016, with funding for a law library that was previously housed in the public library across the street, in an effort to provide more assistance to self-represented litigants.

The center director, Annemarie Schuller, described it as the only place in the court system where someone can ask a question. Parents like the roofer, for example, can ask how to request their support be set at a lower rate.

“It’s a more effective use of the same funds,” Schuller said. “Most self-represented litigants don’t want to come in and just face a wall of books or a computer. That’s not what they need. They need a human being.”

Schuller said many who come in have lower literacy and education. The four center staff give as much time as they can, but can’t always help them fill in every blank in a 150-page paperwork packet.

In September, unless COVID derails them, Schuller hopes to start bringing in a volunteer family law attorney weekly who could help with questions on child support cases.

She echoes Brown-Williford’s wish that parents would come to the center sooner, when support is being established and they have a better chance of influencing the outcome.

Though she believes there needs to be some mechanism to enforce child support, she said sometimes it’s hard to watch parents of lower socioeconomic status get caught in the cycles of enforcement.

“In a lot of instances it’s kind of defeating the purpose. But I don’t have a better solution.”

Case 6: ‘Send me to jail over $800?’

Stafford seemed regretful to see the next case on his docket.

“God darn it. Let me tell you something,” he told the mother, “this is a serious matter. The state has brought you here for contempt. So be careful.”

The mother said she never received the state’s letters about the $846 she owes because she’s been homeless and out of work since COVID. She said they had taken her first stimulus check to pay down the debt. 

She’d been trying to do house and yard work, “anything I can come up with.” She was looking for full-time employment but didn’t have transportation.

“How much money do you think that you can pay towards this case within 30 days to keep yourself from going to jail?” the Department of Revenue’s lawyer asked.

“Uh oh. I don’t even know. It’s hard to say. What would you — what would you suggest?”

“Your balance is about $850. Can you pay your balance in full within 30 days?”

“Of course not,” the mother said, an edge creeping into her voice. “Like I just said, I’m homeless and have no job. I can’t believe I’m even being harassed about 800-and-something dollars.”

“How much money do you believe that you can come up with in 30 days?”

“Ma’am, I barely can feed myself right now. My daughter is grown and supports herself. Y’all are going to keep harassing me over $800? Send me to jail over $800?”

“Yes,” Stafford interjected, sounding more tired than he had the rest of the day.

“This is ridiculous,” the mother said.

“Yeah it is,” Stafford said. “I agree.”

“If I can try to come up with something, it’s surely not going to be able to be $800. I don’t even have a place to lay my head.”

“It’s not going to be $800, I assure you,” Stafford said, before finding her in contempt for the second time over this case, reminding her her assets included her clothes, and setting her purge amount at $100 within 35 days.

If she doesn’t pay it in time, she faces a jail sentence of 29 days.

“It should be higher,” Stafford said of the jail sentence, “but I remember you.”

Nine changes that could help poor parents weather the storm

Those interviewed for this story recommended these possible reforms:

  1. Current enforcement tactics are largely ineffective. Less than half of support orders are paid in full every month. Of the nearly $8 billion owed in Florida the last fiscal year, only about $2 billion was collected.

Garnishing wages has been shown to be by far the most effective method of child support enforcement. Haney argues rather than punishing poor parents with enforcement methods that make it more difficult to find and keep work, the state should assist them with finding steady work and garnish the resulting wages. Haney said mothers prefer this because it’s reliable enough to budget around.

  1. Though the Bradley Amendment restricts retroactive modification, some states and counties interpret it as applying only to private orders and agree to forgive “welfare payback” arrears. Florida could adopt this interpretation. Some places have created debt forgiveness programs contingent on keeping up with current child support payments.

Debt relief is associated with consistent and higher support payments and improved family relationships.

  1. A federal mandate of $0 incarceration orders would help automate the freezing of child support obligations and keep incarcerated parents’ debt from snowballing. Florida could then make this easily accessible by including child support on a mandated prison intake form.

  1. Pass-throughs are correlated with more and higher child support payments. Florida could enact a pass-through system like those in other states.

  1. The state could choose to stop charging interest on support debt for those currently unable to earn regular wages, including incarcerated and hospitalized parents.

  1. Some parents aren’t even aware they’re under a support obligation or that their license was suspended because the address they have on file with the courts is outdated. The state could require support orders to be served person-to-person like other kinds of legal paperwork.

  1. Haney said the state could “set clear, non-negotiable, non-discretionary procedures for issuing contempt, and not leave it up to judges to decide who to hold in contempt and why.”

  1. Stafford said the system would be much more inefficient, but more equitable, if parents at least had formalized access to legal guidance before coming into court.

  1. The county and state could provide more funding to resources like the Self-Help Center. Schuller said their biggest need is more volunteer attorneys, and rekindling a partnership with UF law students would be ideal.

Haney said the biggest obstacle to reform is the stigma against parents who owe support debt. She believes politicians would be more open to reform if the public had more understanding for how parents can end up in that position through no fault of their own.

It’s something Stafford said he thinks about every time he makes a ruling:

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”


Do you owe or receive child support and would like to share your experience with a reporter? Click


Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.