Correction: This column originally incorrectly reported the state’s interest rate on unpaid child support, which is the equivalent of 2% a year.
My summer spent in and around the Tulsa court system taught me one thing: The Tulsa court system discriminates against people in poverty.
We’ve seen attention drawn to Oklahoma’s unconstitutional debtor’s prisons, unconscionable bail system and highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. However, an oft-ignored leg of Oklahoma’s incarceration of the poor is its child support enforcement system.
Custodial parents who wish to apply for public benefits must permit the state to go after the other parent for child support to “reimburse” the state for money spent on the children. For a mother to apply for Medicaid for her children, she must allow the state to sue, call to court and possibly incarcerate the father of her children.
Once the state is involved, there is no mercy for Tulsa parents who miss child support payments, regardless of their circumstances.
In June, I watched a man called to court for past-due child support payments who had lost his job as a groundskeeper following an injury.
After falling down a flight of stairs and tearing his rotator cuff, he became unemployed and was forced to move back in with his mother, bringing his 2-year-old daughter with him. On June 28, Judge Julie Doss heard this testimony and sent this father to jail for six months, or until someone paid the $600 purge fee to get him out.
Of every purge fee, $500 goes straight to Tulsa County in the name of a court fine and does nothing to benefit the children the court is claiming to be looking out for. Why is our government sucking money from parents who appear in court because of inability to pay?
I saw the court incarcerate a woman who had worked as a nurse but found herself temporarily unemployed due to struggles with mental health.
I watched the court incarcerate a struggling small business owner and sole provider for four children in his home.
Jail is not a place where parents can find treatment, jobs, money or the ability to work to make money to pay child support. And while a parent is in jail, child support continues to accrue and gain interest. Child support debt increases at a rate of 2% a year in interest, pushing parents even deeper in debt.
Child support is supposed to be income-based, but in Tulsa, often when someone has low or no income, whether due to incarceration, disability or other factors, the court pretends that someone is actually earning minimum wage at a full-time job. And even when they are not, the court demands child support payments based on this imaginary income in a practice called “imputing” income.
This is likely why 70% of child support debt nationally is owed by parents making under $10,000 a year.
The child support enforcement system in Oklahoma hurls poor parents into a virtually inescapable trap: ordering them to pay what they can’t afford, taking away their driver’s license when they inevitably fail to make payments then throwing them in jail where they can’t work. If a parent’s family pulls together rent, grocery and gas money to pay the court for incarcerating their loved one, or after the six-month sentence has expired, the parent ends up back on the street, burdened by debt and likely unemployed as a result of their incarceration. Without a job, this parent is likely to miss child support payments: more jail time, rinse and repeat. The child support enforcement system in Tulsa almost seems designed to keep parents from breaking out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Tulsa, there has to be a better way.
Eva Durchholz served as a 2019 summer impact intern for the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Placed at the nonprofit Still She Rises, she spent the summer observing the Tulsa child support docket and doing research for Still She Rises. She currently studies Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and can be reached at email@example.com.