Memphis Commercial Appeal, Chest-Thumping Sheriff Humiliate Hard Luck Noncustodial Parents

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell recently published the names and birthdays of 4,500 alleged deadbeat parents in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Tennessee’s largest newspaper. Luttrell states that he took out the ads because the 9,000 parents for whom he has warrants owe their children $75 million—$8,333 per parent. One man allegedly owes $1.3 million. At the same time, Luttrell’s deputies fanned out across largely black South Memphis hunting down "deadbeats." Both the humiliating newspaper ads and the police raids unfairly target low-income parents.

Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earned less than $10,000 in the previous year; less than four percent of the overall national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year. According to the largest federally-funded study of divorced dads ever conducted, unemployment, not willful neglect, is the largest cause of failure to pay child support.

The artificially inflated arrearages are created in large part because the child support system is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce his or her child support payments. In such cases, the amounts owed mount quickly, as do interest and penalties. Only three states charge a higher interest rate on past due support than Tennessee’s 12 percent.

The "Most Wanted Deadbeat Parents" lists put out by most states illustrate this problem. Far from being lists of well-heeled businessmen, lawyers, and accountants, the vast majority of the men on these lists do low wage and often seasonal work, and owe large sums of money which they could never hope to pay off. Even a person with a college degree is a rare find on these lists.

Moreover, child support enforcement agencies are notorious for their bureaucratic bungling and incessant computer errors. When other law enforcement officials have published "deadbeat" parent lists similar to Luttrell’s, innocent people have been vilified and subjected to public ridicule.

For example, when the Louisville Courier-Journal published the names and addresses of 1,000 alleged child support scofflaws in July of last year on behalf of Jefferson County Attorney Irv Maze, they listed James H. Frazier as a deadbeat who owes $57,000. Unfortunately, they listed his name above the home address of James R. Frazier.

WAVE 3 TV in Louisville reported that James R. Frazier and his wife Bertha—both of whom seethed at being publicly humiliated—had been erroneously targeted by Maze before, and had spent years fighting to straighten out the error. Maze’s office had previously acknowledged its mistake—and then went ahead and published the erroneous information anyway. In fact, as of October 1—over two months later—Maze still had not corrected the error on his list of 1,000 "deadbeats" on the County Attorney’s website.

ABC 7 KGO News in San Francisco, California has followed the saga of Alex Mendez, a childless man who has been mistakenly targeted for alleged overdue child support five times in the past three years by two different counties. After embarrassing media coverage, local enforcement officials repeatedly pledged to fix the error but have failed to do so.

The list published by the Commercial Appeal appears to have similar problems. Memphis’ News Channel 3 WREG quotes a juvenile court source as saying that some of those on the list may have already paid their child support. Nicholas Burchett of WREG was shocked and angered to find his father listed as a "deadbeat"—the man has been dead for 14 years.

Eyewitness News-WPTY reports that the Department of Human Services lost thousands of dollars of child support paid by Hugh Jones of Memphis, leaving Jones with a $10,000 child support arrearage. According to WPTY, DHS cashed Jones’ checks six times but, despite Jones’ detailed documentation, has failed to credit his account. WPTY reports that Jones "has to continue paying his child support if he wants to remain a free man" and avoid jail, even though his "debt" consists of money he has already paid.

In the wake of the Louisville ads Maze wrote a column in which he claimed that his policies "make a clear distinction between ’dead broke’ and ’dead beat’ among child support obligors." As an example, Maze explained "One parent, whose name is not on the list, but who is behind in her payments, contacted my office stating that she had been unable to find steady employment," and says his office offered her assistance in seeking employment.

Yet child support expert Jane Spies of the National Family Justice Association discovered that although Maze says this woman was not on his published deadbeat list, in a previous interview on National Public Radio Maze spoke of the same woman, and said she "saw her name in the newspaper" and contacted him. In other words, Maze admits that the woman was too poor to pay her child support, but he nevertheless publicly humiliated her by publishing her name and address. Many if not most of those targeted in Luttrell’s raids and Commercial Appeal ads are in similar situations.

While Luttrell’s list no doubt contains some bad actors, the larger problem lies not with non-custodial parents, but instead with the child support system. Instead of public humiliation and strong arm tactics, the system needs to be reformed so low income parents aren’t turned into criminals because they’ve failed to pay obligations which are beyond their reach.

  • Tennessee Tribune