Photo by Evan Delshaw, Flickr CC

Fathers who do not pay formal child support are often the brunt of media and public scrutiny. Black fathers, in particular, face racial stereotypes that accuse them of being “bad fathers” for not being involved in their children’s lives. Yet, not paying child support may also lead to more serious consequences, such as the accruement of child support debt and jail time for nonpayment of debt. New research by Elizabeth Cozzolino traces this multistep process to explore noncustodial fathers’ risks of receiving jail time for nonpayment of child support.

Cozzolino draws upon responses from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey to test which factors lead to a formal child support order; which factors lead to child support debt; and lastly, which factors result in a noncustodial father’s jail time for nonpayment of debt. The author suggests that two key pathways may determine a noncustodial father’s entrance into the criminal justice system: first, the relationship context between the mother and noncustodial father (e.g. securing a new relationship with another partner) and, second, the mother’s use of public assistance such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or Medicaid.

Out of the families with noncustodial fathers, roughly 50 percent received orders for child support. A mother’s use of public assistance and a decrease in the quality of the relationship between the mother and noncustodial father increased noncustodial fathers’ likelihood of receiving a formal child support order. Sixty percent of fathers with a child support order accrued child support debt, and this resulted in jail time for 14 percent of them. The use of public assistance by the mother was less important for accruing child support debt, but the relationship context remained salient. Significant factors that increased a noncustodial father’s likelihood of jail time include having multiple children with different partners and owing more than $10,000 in child support debt. If these punitive patterns continue, the welfare and criminal justice systems will only reproduce inequalities that will likely exacerbate a father’s ability to financially support their children.