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Executive Order Gives Child Support Relief for Incarcerated Parents
Date: May 03, 2017 08:49AM

Executive Order Gives Child Support Relief for Incarcerated Parents

In the last days of the Obama administration, regulators quietly eased the child support burden on parents in prison. In an executive action just a month before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration unveiled a new federal regulation aimed at ending state policies that can leave prisoners saddled with crippling child support debts.

The new rule, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, requires states to notify all parents incarcerated of their right to ask the child support agency for a temporary reduction in payments. The regulations crafted by the Administration for Children and Families would require that prisoners be allowed to seek to lower the amount of child support they pay while in prison. The move aims to avoid inmates struggling to repay large debts after their release that can lead to reincarceration.

Many states have long considered incarceration a form of “voluntary” impoverishment, and therefore not a valid excuse for missing child-support payments. The policy effectively blocked many prisoners from modifying existing child support orders.

But jobs in state prisons pay a median wage of about 20 cents an hour, meaning that most incarcerated parents cannot feasibly pay the full amount of their child-support obligation — and end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt by the time they get out.

In 2010, the Obama administration said nearly 29,000 of the 51,000 federal prisoners with child-support orders were behind on payments. According to the HHS’s Office of Child Support Enforcement, parents owe an average of $23,000 or more in child support. With it being hard enough to reintegrate into society, the cycle of poverty and incarceration is likely to continue.

Under the new regulations, states would not be allowed to treat incarceration as "voluntary unemployment." States would also be required to notify both parents of the right to seek changes to child support payments if one of the parents is incarcerated for more than six months.

The new rule, said Vicki Turetsky, commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, is intended to keep these mostly-poor fathers out of severe debt so they are less tempted back into crime after they are released.

"Our number one goal is to increase regular child support payments to families. Orders often go unpaid when they are set beyond the ability of unemployed and low-wage parents to pay them, resulting in large arrearages that themselves lead to less employment and support paid," Turetsky said.

"By ensuring states set their orders based on actual circumstances in the family, we believe the rule will result in more reliable child support payments, and children will benefit,” Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Mark Greenberg said in a statement about the new rule, published by the Department of Health and Human Services.

President Obama had advocated for the rules in late 2014 as part of his push for criminal justice reform in his second term. In June 2015, Republicans in Congress — led by then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — introduced legislation to block the Obama administration from introducing the rule, saying it would be a burden on taxpayers and reward "deadbeat parents." The legislation has since stalled.
It is unclear whether the Trump administration will resume efforts to undo the regulation. But to do so, the new Health and Human Services Department under Secretary Tom Price would have to go through the same extensive rulemaking process the Obama administration did — which took more than two years.

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