Parents on trial : jailing for child support nonpayment
Although the child support enforcement and criminal justice systems have divergent purposes, they are connected when courts jail parents who owe child support debt. Jailing for child support nonpayment is one of many possible mechanisms of child support enforcement, but little is known about how frequently this tactic is used, against whom, and what the consequences are. Using a mixed methods design, this project explores the frequency, process, and consequences of jail for child support nonpayment. This dissertation is divided into four substantive chapters. In Chapter 1, I use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW) to explore the prevalence of jail for child support debt in a national context, finding that about 14% of debtors go to jail for this debt by the time their child is nine years old. I propose two conceptual pathways into jail, and find that debt load and family complexity are major predictors of incarceration. In Chapter 2, I map the legal process of finding a parent in contempt and committing the parent to jail, focusing on the role of judicial discretion at three crucial decision points in the life of a case. Focusing on my field work in Riley County, Chapter 3 argues that child support officials police the work and family choices of nonresident parents in ways conceptually similar to how welfare policy controls recipients’ behavior. Chapter 4 identifies how interpersonal gendered disputes translate into legal action in the child support enforcement process. This project has the potential to contribute to the national conversation about legal debt, family change, and criminal justice reform, as well as to inform laws and policies concerning child support, criminal justice, and the family. This project also has implications for the study of inequality. Through triangulating a range of novel data sources, this dissertation investigates how one legal process—punitive child support enforcement—affects people’s lives and life chances.