Editor’s note: This story is part three of a series examining Mississippi’s child support enforcement program. Read the other stories here.

Candace McNeil, an Olive Branch mother of two, said she’s received payments for as little as 25 cents through the Mississippi child support enforcement program.

The same program resulted in one Greenville father losing his driver’s license, an especially brutal punishment for someone who earns a living driving trucks.

Dowayne Charlot, who now lives in Louisiana, cycled in and out of jail for a decade after letting his child support debts pile up, eventually winding up in a modern-day Mississippi debtors prison.

The child support enforcement program sounds great in theory, but for many Mississippi families, the effects are nonsensical. 

Since welfare primarily existed for poor single mothers in the 1970s when the public child support system began, the idea was that if the states could hold fathers accountable for their children, they could ease the burden off of the government for providing for those families.

“I’m for people paying their child support. But I also want you to understand that there’s a real humanistic side of me not being able to pay my child support,” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, who has filed several unsuccessful bills to make policies within the child support program more friendly to low-income Mississippians. “I’ve just had a real problem with inhumane responses to humane situations.”

The child support system, one of the largest social programs in the nation, has at times operated like a collection agency, backed by law enforcement mechanisms. But it has started receiving a makeover in recent years, with more national agency leaders and policymakers recognizing that a punitive approach to parenting doesn’t produce better outcomes. 

This is especially true in the poorest state in the nation, though Mississippi has not fully implemented changes to its child support guidelines to make sure it doesn’t jail indigent fathers, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited in 2011.

“Higher orders and tougher enforcement do not increase collections when the barrier to payment is poverty,” Vicki Turetsky, former commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement from 2009 to 2016, said in a 2019 report.

In the decades since its inception, the child support program has been plagued by distorted stereotypes of deadbeat dads and spendthrift moms. There are narratives of the single, low-income mother struggling to compel a father to pony up, or of the working father who faces a squeezed paycheck and cruel consequences for noncompliance.

Some custodial parents, usually moms, in Mississippi are forced into the program when they try to apply for assistance then, either the child support payment or the amount of assistance is usually cut as a result. Though states have the option, Mississippi keeps any child support paid to families on welfare to pay itself back for any cash assistance provided the family.

“I think it’s meant to keep it antagonistic,” McNeil, the mom of two, said of the program.

Because the agency division often operates counterintuitively and imposes blanket rules on the complex, unique lives of Mississippi families, advocates say, both sides suffer. 

“It’s like we’re eating the seed corn,” said Oleta Fitzgerald, longtime director of the Children Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office. “While the goal is to get the noncustodial parent to invest in the child and the life of a child that they brought into the world, the outcomes are that the children are not getting what they need to be able to fare better when they get older.”

Generalizing the circumstances of the nearly 800,000 people across the state who find themselves in the program is virtually impossible, which presents a challenge for the program operators, who know that the service must contain consistency. 

“You still have got to run a program without redesigning the program every time somebody steps up to the help desk window,” said Rob Wells, owner of YoungWilliams, the state’s child support enforcement contractor. “Because if you do, then you don’t even have a program.”

Before McNeil entered the state system in 2015, she said, when her ex-husband still consistently paid, “It was just like: Ok, we have these kids. They have needs. Open the mailbox, a check’s there. You put it in the bank. You take care of whatever.”

“But with child support enforcement, it’s like you’ve invited someone else into your home that creates a lot of extra conflict,” McNeil said.

Ever since the court turned her case over to the Mississippi Department of Human Services,  she said she’s received inconsistent, delayed and sometimes nonsensical payments amounting to pocket change from the father of her two children. Without a portal to track the incoming funds, it’s nearly impossible for her to know how much she’s receiving each month and how much she’s owed.

McNeil, a freelance administrative worker, eventually had to apply for food benefits, which required that she continue to comply with the program. Most states don’t have this policy.

“Sometimes you’re forced into poverty and there’s like this cycle,” McNeil said. “I just want to be done. It does feel like prison.”

When people don’t feel the state is aggressive enough in pursuing absent fathers, officials say, it may be because they do not realize what the operation actually entails.

“That’s where there’s a big myth,” Lyndsy Irwin, the state’s former child support program director, told Mississippi Today in a 2019 interview. “I think a lot of our families think that we have investigators who are like going out … we don’t have those kinds of resources.”

When a mother doesn’t believe she’s receiving as much support as she’s due, Wells said, “the question becomes, to what level will we enforce the order against the guy?”

In recent years, the public program has reduced the speed and frequency with which it files civil contempt complaints against nonpaying parents.

“The guy may not have anything more than part-time, cutting grass kind of wages,” Wells said. “Where is the level at which we say stop?” 

McNeil, too, said she knows men who are barely able to survive with what’s left of their paycheck after child support is taken out. Nowhere may that be truer than in Mississippi, which imposes a relatively high average monthly child support payment for a state with among the lowest wages and the second lowest labor force participation rate in the nation for men.

Just 74% of men aged 20 to 64 in the state are employed or looking for work. The state also has the third highest incarceration rate in the nation. Mississippi must soon change its program guidelines so that men are not considered “voluntarily unemployed” while in prison, officials told Mississippi Today, but the practice continues today.

Hines, the representative, recalled the story of the Greenville father, whose child support debt piled up during a prison stint. By the time he got out, Hines said, the state suspended his driver’s license for nonpayment. That harmed the truck driver’s job prospects, only making it harder for him to earn the money he’d need to support his children.

“Prior to going to jail he had never missed a payment,” Hines said.

Law enforcement officers picked up Charlot, who faced criminal charges in 2005 for not paying child support, a decade after his initial Pike County conviction. Though he contends he’d already paid the more than $20,000 debt by that time, a judge in 2017 ordered Charlot to live at a Restitution Center, a modern-day debtors prison, for as long as it took him to earn enough money at the low wage jobs where correctional officers placed him. All told, he said he was locked up a total of five years for the offense.

“The state of Mississippi f-cked me, straight up,” Charlot said. “I paid like $50,000 for kids I never saw in my life.”

Charlot’s case might be the extreme, but between 2016 and 2018, at least 185 Mississippians attended court on the same charge, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of data from the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts. 

Whether a parent is appearing in court for criminal charges, a civil contempt complaint from the Department of Human Services or even a modification of a support order, judges have broad discretion to decide what happens to them.

“There is no rhyme or reason to it,” McNeil said. “It’s kind of like tornadoes. What makes one tornado land here and skip this house.”

Turetsky, the former federal commissioner, envisioned a completely different approach. While Mississippi is behind in the trend, states have been enacting more humane policies within their child support programs so that the government isn’t digging parents into a bigger hole.

But in watering down harsh enforcement measures, experts acknowledge, something has to take their place to ensure mothers aren’t left in a lurch. 

“Sometimes the most effective strategy to increase support for a child is to connect a father to a job,” Turetsky wrote in a decade-old report, adding that child support programs should “intervene early to address the underlying reasons for nonsupport — whether it is unemployment, parent conflict or disengagement.”

Back in 2010, Mississippi’s antiquated child support enforcement system was barely doing the minimum in pushing cases along. But now that Wells’ company has greased the program’s gears, he said, the state has an opportunity to reenvision what child support looks like as a social program. 

“To be successful for both parents, we need them to both be communicating with us. But when they feel like they’re perceived as a deadbeat parent, they’re not going to be very willing to communicate with the state,” said Irwin, the former program director. “Trying to change the perspective of the program I think is really important.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.