At What Cost?

Maryland’s child support system, built and maintained with the professed purpose of helping children thrive, uses short-sighted policies and punitive enforcement tactics to collect payments, often from the poorest parents, who can’t pay what the government has decided is due. The debt is concentrated in Baltimore’s struggling communities, where about 15,000 parents collectively owe more than $233 million. This crushing balance promotes participation in the underground economy, driving fathers and their children apart and hurting entire neighborhoods.

These noncustodial parents—mostly black men—are often assigned monthly child support payments based on imaginary incomes they may never be able to earn. They can quickly fall behind, finding more than half their earnings garnished, their driver’s and professional licenses suspended, the threat of jail looming over them.

In many cases, a relentless collection bureaucracy is seeking payment not just to send to needy mothers and children, but to repay government welfare programs that have provided assistance to the families. To be sure, everyone acknowledges that parents must support their children. But it’s been widely known for decades that the taxpayer-supported system isn’t working for the poorest of families, yet little has been done to fix it.

For this nine-month investigation, The Baltimore Sun’s Yvonne Wenger interviewed dozens of families, attorneys, advocates, officials, and others, reviewed hundreds of pages of records and attended hours of child support court hearings. The Sun’s Christine Zhang obtained data on Maryland's more than 190,000 child support cases with demographic data at the ZIP code level, to pinpoint the Baltimore areas where child support debt, poverty and incarceration intersect. Photographer Lloyd Fox Fox also spent months visiting homes and workplaces to understand and document the system’s impact on poor fathers, their families, and communities.