Theses Doctoral

Reintegration in the Red: Navigating Child Support Arrears After Prison

Spencer-Suarez, Kimberly

For most formerly incarcerated people, the transition from prison to free society is fraught with challenges and constraints, some of which can persist for years, even decades, after one is released. Difficulty finding work, housing, and earning enough to make ends meet are essentially par for the course, among myriad other disadvantages. Child support debt can then make what is already a complicated situation far worse, not least of all because failure to pay brings about punitive legal sanctions. Arrearages at once constitute a collateral consequence of conviction and a barrier to reintegration. Incarceration can lead to the establishment of a child support order and the accumulation of debt, since most obligors can neither provide for their families nor effectively pursue order modifications while serving time. Then, once they are released, they face substantial obligations, dim financial prospects, and potential wage garnishment rates amounting to nearly two-thirds of their income—and that is assuming the individual manages to secure employment. Revenue that Child Support Enforcement (CSE) collects from these obligors often does not even go toward their families. Indeed, a significant share of arrears held by low-income and incarcerated fathers, sometimes with compound interest, is owed to the state for reimbursement of public benefits provided to the custodial family. By extracting formerly incarcerated fathers’ scarce financial resources on behalf of the state, CSE may actually be diverting potential informal support away from low-income families. Moreover, noncompliance can precipitate an array of consequences, some of which directly jeopardize the freedom of obligors involved in the criminal legal system.

Dual entanglements in the carceral and child support systems comprise an issue that has gone largely unexamined in the empirical literature, at least until recently. This dissertation contributes to this emerging corpus of research by examining the dynamics of child support obligations, and especially debt, in the context of short- and long-term reintegration. Based on 31 in-depth, semi-structured interviews, the study examines formerly incarcerated, indebted fathers’ instrumental and symbolic understandings of child support. Findings include an inductively-constructed tripartite framework for obligors’ functional comprehension and interpretive frames, while highlighting major gaps in debtor knowledge and institutional provision of information. The dissertation also explores the ways in which obligors respond to child support obligations after prison, from engagement and compliance on one end to “off the grid” avoidance on the other. The analysis then addresses the various disruptive roles that child support arrears play throughout a series of transitional, though not necessarily sequential stages of post-prison reintegration. Implications for child support and criminal legal policy, and policy recommendations, are discussed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Social Work
Thesis Advisors
Schwalbe, Craig S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 22, 2021