Texas parents lapsed in child support face car renewal trouble
By John Austin
Pay up or park it. Starting this week, that’s basically what the attorney general is telling Texas parents who haven’t paid child support for six months.
Notices began going into the mail Thursday, alerting delinquent parents that come December, they won’t be able to renew vehicle registrations without arranging to pay overdue child support. Some owe more than $20,000.
Critics say the tactic will hurt, not help, families.
“Policies that take away noncustodial parents’ ability to drive when they can’t afford to pay child support are cruel and counterproductive,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress’ Poverty to Prosperity Program.
Vallas said parents who’ve fallen behind in child support get caught in a trap.
“These policies not only punish parents for their poverty, they also make it that much harder for parents to work, further reducing their ability to afford child support payments,” she said.
The state shouldn’t push parents deeper into poverty and make it harder to pay, she said, but instead should “focus on connecting struggling parents with employment services to help them get back on track so they can contribute monetarily to their children’s futures.”
The law tying child support payments to car registrations has been on the books since 2007, said John Sampson, a University of Texas School of Law professor.
Enforcement is just beginning because of the “extraordinary” effort to link the state’s computer systems, said Janece Rolfe, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s child support division. Rolfe estimated 1,000 to 2,000 parents each month will be affected.
Although parents won’t have to pay everything they owe to renew a car registration, Rolfe said a minimum of $200 is required. In some cases, she added, “we could require a payment of more than $200.”
The parent in arrears will receive a letter 90 days before the car registration expires.
The state has similar laws denying various other licenses — hunting, fishing and driver’s licenses included — due to unpaid child support, said Sampson. Also, it can revoke professional licenses of delinquent parents.
Austin family law attorney Tim Mahoney said the new policy is “punitive.”
Child support payments are based a percentage of a non-custodial parent’s income – for example, 20 percent of net resources for one child. Courts can modify the amounts, but parents must first ask for a review.
“If somebody is behind in child support and doesn’t have a job, that’s the last thing they think about,” Mahoney said. “Most of these people just get beat into the ground.”
A 2007 Urban Institute study found that most delinquent child support is owed by parents with no income or low income.
Two years ago, the think tank studied 12,000 families in 10 cities, including Houston, and found that people with cars are twice as likely to find work, and four times as likely to remain employed.
The study blamed “insufficient public transit” — especially in areas with more jobs, affordable housing and higher performing schools — for workers’ dependency on cars.
Nune Phillips, an analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, said Texas’ size and a shortage of public transit compound the challenges.
“We believe states should use their tools to uplift the non-custodial parents so that they can support their children,” Phillips said.
Some states are working on that. At least 30 have programs meant to help noncustodial parents find work, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Texas Workforce Commission has implemented a similar program that aims to assist low-income parents who are unemployed or underemployed and who’ve fallen behind on child support.
Nearly three-quarters of those involved in the program found work, according to the commission, and most land jobs within two months of starting the program.
As for those whose car registrations are revoked, Rolfe sounded unsympathetic.
“Keep in mind that parents have been driving their car with the ability to get work — and they have paid nothing,” she said. “They’ve gone six months without paying.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.