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Nebraska DOC Obstructing Efforts to Modify Prisoners’ Child Support Payments

Nebraska DOC Obstructing Efforts to Modify Prisoners’ Child Support Payments

Excessive enforcement of child support obligations is not only detrimental to incarcerated parents, according to advocates in Nebraska, but also risks increasing recidivism and hindering familial relationships.

Legal Aid of Nebraska, led by managing attorney Muirne Heaney, has attempted to help prisoners modify their child support payments by offering forms and clinics on how to navigate that process. But the state’s Department of Correctional Services has obstructed those efforts by prohibiting prisoners from receiving the forms provided by Heaney, saying they haven’t been approved by a state attorney.

“Nobody is advocating [incarcerated parents] should be freed of their responsibility,” Heaney said. “What I am advocating is that we make [child support] a collectable judgment.”

At the end of 2011, Nebraska prisoners – over 4,000 men and women – owed back child support and interest of about $86 million; close to 700 had monthly child support obligations of at least $400. Many had owed back child support before they were incarcerated.

The debts are despite the enactment of a 2007 state law that made imprisonment an involuntary, rather than voluntary, circumstance with respect to child support payments once a prisoner has been incarcerated at least six months. As a result of that law, prisoners are able to apply for modification of their child support obligations while incarcerated.

Mel Beckman, editor of the Nebraska Criminal Justice Review, said he doubted that state prison officials are informing prisoners they can seek modifications, which is why Heaney offered to provide the forms and conduct the clinics.

Heaney noted that reentry is made more difficult when ex-offenders have high child support debts upon release. When and if they find jobs, they’re usually low-paying positions – not including garnishment for monthly child support payments and back payments.

“It seems counter-productive to me,” Heaney observed.

Byron Van Patten, child support administrator for Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services, said it’s not the state’s intent to leave prisoners and ex-offenders destitute. HHS supervisors visit prisons to answer questions before prisoners are released so they are aware of their child support responsibilities.

But Heaney argued that if the state makes it hard for ex-offenders to live due to high child support debts that accrued during their incarceration, they will be incentivized to make money in other ways – including through illegal activities.

She added that non-custodial parents are sometimes ashamed of their inability to support their kids, so they simply stay away from them. As a result, those children are more likely to get into trouble, abuse drugs and alcohol, and drop out of school.

“I used to be a prosecutor,” Heaney said. “I am not in favor of people committing crimes. But I am in favor of practicality. And if we want these people to return to society, and be contributing members of society, it behooves us to not erect barriers to that.”

The child support modification forms that Heaney produced are still not allowed in state prisons. Legal Aid of Nebraska, which receives funding from Legal Services Corporation (LCS), a publicly-funded non-profit, cannot directly represent prisoners due to restrictions placed on LCS by Congress in 1996.

Source: Omaha Journal-Star

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