The amnesty dilemma

Dec. 02, 2013 @ 05:17 PM

It’s hard to underestimate the dilemma the Durham County Department of Social Services – like counterpart agencies around the country – faces in trying to wrest child-support payments from some parents no longer having custody of their children.

The problem is widespread.

Nationally, for every three dollars of child support owed to custodial parents, one dollar goes unpaid, according to a U. S. Census Bureau report last month.

In 2011, the year in which the Census data were collected, custodial parents failed to receive a total of $14.3 billion owed by the partner who wasn’t in the household.

In all, non-custodial parents owed $37.9 billion that year to 14.4 million custodial parents, but only $23.6 billion actually was paid.

Parents fail to pay child support for myriad reasons. Some are scofflaws, uninterested in the welfare of the children they helped to bring into this world and too self-centered or cold-hearted to shoulder their share of the burden.

Many others are well-meaning parents who may be deeply involved with their children but who simply cannot afford to pay. They may be under-trained and undereducated, and face a difficult time finding work. They may have lost good jobs, because of the recession or the vicissitudes of the company or organization for which they worked.

In either case, but especially for those who have fallen on hard times, the punishment of being tossed in jail may have a cathartic effect for the parent who was stiffed or for the social services system charged with enforcement, but it only makes it harder for the delinquent to pay. Deprived of income in jail and facing even greater difficulty getting a good job with a criminal record, he or she generally falls further behind.

The Durham social services department, in an effort to keep people out of jail and collect at least some money, is holding an “Amnesty Day” Wednesday.  If a child-support delinquent is subject to an arrest warrant, he or she (it is mostly, but far from universally, fathers who don’t pay) can pay $350 and have the warrant cancelled.

That sum might be a mere pittance of what’s owed – some folks subject to arrest owe tens of thousands of dollars.

 “My premise is, I want folks to be employed, I want them to pay the child support that they have the ability to pay, and we’re going to work toward that,” DSS official Mary Flounoy told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz. Flounoy is the department’s child support program manager.

We understand that, but therein lies the dilemma. The money may fall far short of what the custodial parent deserves – and desperately needs. 

If the amnesty lets a well-meaning but luckless parent get back on his or her feet and start making payments going forward, that’s a good thing. But we worry that this program rains on the just and the unjust alike, and if a scofflaw gets a break and can continue running up another unpaid tab, it leaves us wondering if there is not another way to achieve justice.