The goal of the US child support program is to promote parental responsibility so that children receive support from both parents. When noncustodial parents are unable to pay child support, enforcement efforts often constrict their ability to overcome debt by reducing their earning potential. African American fathers are more likely to experience economic fragility and incarceration, thus making them more likely to accrue child support arrears. In this way, the child support system acts as a tool of structural violence that exacerbates stressors already experienced by African American men, creating a cycle of poverty and mental health inequity. To date, research has not examined this process. Our research begins to address this gap by exploring the impact of the child support system on the mental health and relationships of African American fathers in Cook County, aged 20-49, who have experienced arrearages.
Using a case study approach, we collected 24 interviews across 6 African American fathers in Cook County. Interviews focused on various domains including parent-child relationship, relationship with co-parent, experiences with the justice system, experiences with the child support system (both court-based and administrative), their overall wellbeing and mental health, and opportunities for reforming the system. Additionally, each father completed a pre- and post- survey that included the Child-Parent Relationship Scale Short form, PROMIS® Anxiety Assessment, Perceived Stress Scale, and the NIH Self Efficacy Scale.
Our participants ranged in age from 33 – 49 with annual incomes ranging from $5,009 to $40,000. Pre- and post- survey results indicate that participants reported feeling close to their children and high self-efficacy scores. Salient themes from the qualitative interviews include an unjust system, the meaning of fatherhood, and mental health and wellbeing. Within these themes, participants described a system that lacks transparency and values only what monetary payments can be extracted from fathers, versus what value they bring to their children’s lives. Participants remarked on how the stresses of the system ultimately impacted their mental health and overall wellbeing.
Our findings illustrate the ways in which the child support system acts as a tool of structural violence, creating a cycle of toxic stress and negatively impacting family relationships. Our participants described each system interaction as a re-traumatization, consistently making them feel powerless and undervalued. Overall, this work speaks to the nexus of clinical practice and policy practice. Opportunities for reforming the system include focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of parents while prioritizing healthy relationship building between co-parents by including intervention services, as well as reforming enforcement policies such that they are less punitive.