ENFIELD, Conn. (AP) - Julaquis Minnifield was sitting in his prison cell last summer when he received a notice from the state of Connecticut that he owed more than $13,000 in back child support for his 8-year-old son.
Minnifield went to prison knowing he must pay $55 a week in child support under an order obtained by his former girlfriend but said he had no idea the debt was accruing while he was behind bars. He expects to owe more than $15,000 by the time he is released next year.
"What chance do I have to pay if I'm incarcerated? The longer I sit here, the higher the debt goes," Minnifield, a 31-year-old Waterbury man, said in an interview at the Carol Robinson Correctional institution in Enfield, where he is serving a 2-year sentence for drug possession.
It's a challenge faced by incarcerated parents across the country, the vast majority of them fathers. Just because they are in prison does not mean they won't have to pay child support or repay the state for welfare paid to their families in lieu of child support. Experts say the debt can make overwhelmed parents less likely to pay when they are released, and potentially damage relationships with their children.
Jessica Pearson, director of the Center for Policy Research in Denver, said her studies of state programs for the federal government show that more than half the inmates in both state and federal prisons are parents with children under 18, and half of those have active child-support cases.
"In general, inmates seem to go in owing about $10,000 in child support and come out owing about $20,000," she said.
In several states, such as Tennessee, incarceration is considered "voluntary unemployment," and inmates cannot get child support obligation amended while in prison. Those laws are designed to ensure inmates are not being rewarded for committing a crime, and children don't get penalized, Pearson said.
While there are no state or national statistics, Sheryl Kee, a caseworker for Families in Crisis Inc., a private social services agency in Bridgeport that assists families of inmates, said parents on the outside are often forced into welfare, take on two or three additional jobs, or move in with relatives to make ends meet once a caregiver goes to prison and the child support stops.
"It's a hardship," she said. "I think some are bitter about it, but it's more of a struggle about what are they going to do to cope with this and help their children."
Roland Warren, president of the Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative, which works to get dads more involved in their children's lives, said it would be great if the government could get the money from the inmates to support their children. But he said laws that force their debt higher actually have the opposite effect.
"There you also have a structure set up with an incentive for the father not to pay when he comes out," he said. "The hill just looks too big."
States such as Massachusetts and Texas allow inmates to have child-support orders modified to a minimum payment, which can range from $20 to $80 a month depending on the state, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Others, including Connecticut, allow a judge to eliminate the payments entirely while a parent has no income. Charisse Hutton, director support enforcement services for the state, said the theory is that parents are much more likely to pay if the orders are realistic.
"I want that order to be fair, so there is a better chance that person can and will pay," she said.
Hutton's office, which is part of the Judicial Branch, and the state Correction Department are working to educate inmates about their child-support obligations and how to have a judge modify their orders.
A 2007 study showed 36 percent of more than 74,000 child-support cases in the state judicial system involved a parent who was either in custody or had served time in prison for a criminal offense.
Early this year, the state began giving information to inmates coming into the system through the MacDougal-Walker intake prison on how to modify an order. The state also is allowing modification hearings by videoconference.
But the information is not reaching everybody.
Jose Rodriguez, 33, of East Hartford expects to get out of prison early next year after serving 40 months on a weapons charge. He has been in and out of prison all of his adult life, and has a child-support debt of $24,000 for the two children he has been ordered to support.
He said he had no idea that he could get his payments modified, and is concerned the state will begin garnishing his wages, or take away his driver's license, when he returns to work as a roofer or a landscaper. Child-support debt also is reflected on credit reports, and debts of over $2,500 are taken out of any federal or state tax refund and will prevent the parent from getting a passport. Rodriguez said all that can make an ex-con consider taking jobs that pay cash wages under the table.
"It's a setback because you know you're not going to make nothing when you get out," he said. "What about an apartment? What about hygiene? What about a car? I always take care of my kids as much as I can. But paying all this back? That will be forever."
Warren said a large debt also can harm a parent's relationship with a child. A father or mother who cannot pay child support is much less likely to see their non-custodial child than one who can, and conversely, those who don't see their children, lose any incentive to pay.
"You want to support an emotional connection between the parent and child," he said. "If you have an emotional connection that's there, whether you have a small balance or a large balance, that's going to be the motivation for the father to pay."
Much of the money collected from the inmates does not go directly to the custodial parent. Instead, often it is used to reimburse the state for welfare payments made to the family while the non-custodial parent was behind bars and not paying.
Several states, including Illinois and Maryland, have begun programs that will forgive any debt owed to the state, if a former inmate makes regular child-support payments for a specified amount of time, as little as six months in the case of Illinois, Pearson said.
Federal grants have been made available from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to states for programs to help inmates become better fathers, access state services and get jobs. But Pearson said there is little incentive for states to pass legislation to forgive child-support debts.
"It's a land mine for politicians," she said. "To be soft on prisoners, and cut them deals, and forgive state debt for prisoners? They also don't want to make the poor chap who is doing the right thing and working two or three jobs to pay off his debt feel like a fool."
James Calkins, 45, of Winsted said he worked the debt for his 13-year-old son back to zero after getting out of prison in 2007. He's now behind bars again on an assault charge, and has a new debt of $4,000. His application is being processed to get a $200-per-week order reduced while he finishes his 30-month sentence.
"I don't want to take nothing away from my son," he said. "But, right now, I've got nothing to give."