The fear of going to jail for not paying child support set off a chain of events that ended with an unarmed black man being fatally shot by a white police officer in South Carolina, according to the family of Walter Scott. Scott's death on Saturday was captured on video and fueled national outrage as an example of another unjustified killing of a black man at the hands of police. The killing also highlighted what advocates say is an injustice in the child-support enforcement system, which can punish noncustodial parents who don’t pay child support with jail time and disproportionately affects African-American men.

David Pate, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and co-founder of Center for Family Policy and Practice, a nonprofit that advocates for social welfare policies that benefit low-income families, said his research has found that most black men taken to jail for nonpayment of child support wound up getting arrested following a traffic stop. Scott was stopped for a broken taillight when his encounter with since-fired police officer Michael Slager, who was charged with murder, turned deadly in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott was fleeing from Slager when he was shot eight times in the back.

“Black men live in constant fear, period. And I think the fear that Mr. Scott had was on different levels,” said Pate. “There needs to be more uncovering of how the child support system works and whether it helps families who are really poor. For families that are making less than $10,000 [a year], is it helping those children be in a better place when they know their parents are under constant stress of being locked up?”

When noncustodial parents have a child support agreement that wasn’t hashed out by private attorneys, they can be held in contempt of court, and a bench warrant is issued for their arrest when they don’t pay after a certain amount of time, such as in Scott’s case. The slain South Carolina man had been arrested about 10 times, mostly for failing to pay child support, said the Charleston Post and Courier. 

“It doesn’t make sense because when you don’t have any money, you don’t have any money,” Pate said. “It’s like a debtor’s prison. The bottom line is we’re putting people in jail for something they can’t pay. We’re operating a system off of the backs of very poor people who don’t have a lot of money but are giving whatever monies they do have, which may be the minimum wage job they currently have … and it’s not helping their family.”

For couples that don't set up child support payments through private lawyers, state officials are often asked by the primary parent to collect and distribute child support payments. State officials argue such programs, which can aggressively target parents who don't pay up, are needed to cover both a child's basic needs and things like toys and after-school activities.

Nationally, about three in four noncustodial parents with a child support agreement made good on their promise to pay from 1994 to 2002, according to a 2007 report by the Administration for Children and Families. But the rate among blacks was 62 percent, the lowest of any ethnic group. Of the African-Americans who did pay, only 44 percent of the full child support amount was given, compared with 62 percent of the agreement for whites, 53 percent for Hispanics and 58 percent for Asians.

Joan Entmacher, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, said jail time compounds the problem. “Putting them in jail and having arrears build up that they can’t possibly pay doesn’t accomplish anything and is in fact counterproductive,” she said. “It can be harder when someone leaves prison to get a job and make them think they can make regular payments to a family.”

Parents with custody of their children have little recourse beyond child support to get money to provide for their kids, she said. A safety net program known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is difficult to get in many states, where the benchmark is usually less than half of the poverty level in order to apply. “There isn’t any backstop for when the father isn’t making child support payments,” Entmacher said. “The problem is that our system of assistance for children doesn’t provide adequate support when their parents are unable to do that.”