How falling behind on child support can end in jail

South Carolina has one of the harshest regimes in the country when it comes to punishing parents who don’t pay child support.

News Story (South Carolina)

Irin Cameron
April 9, 2015
Link to story

Tags: Civil Rights, Debtors Prison, Driver's license suspension

Organizations mentioned/involved: City University of New York School of Law (CUNY), National Women’s Law Center (NWLC)


Two surveys of county jails in the South Carolina conducted in the last decade found that at least one out of every eight incarcerated people were there because they had been held in contempt of court for not paying child support. Under South Carolina law, if a family receives public benefits, it takes only five days of a non-custodial parent, usually a father, falling behind on a payment to trigger a civil contempt hearing that could mean ending up in jail for up to a year.

And unlike many other states, South Carolina doesn’t allow modifications for how much child support is owed if the parent is incarcerated, whether for owing child support or another reason. The result in states without such modifications is that people can easily leave jail owing $15,000 to $30,000 in child support, in addition to other fees related to their incarceration.

All this, according to a brief filed before the Supreme Court co-written by the former director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services, has created “a modern day debtors’ prison for poor noncustodial parents who lack the ability to pay support.”