Something struck me last night at a presentation I attended with the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable. Something that I want to write about without a witty lyrical title or any images.
First, I want to emphatically acknowledge that if I wasn’t already aware of the incredible challenges those who are re-entering the community after being released from jail or prison face, I certainly would have been after last night’s presentation. I have no lack of empathy for people who have had run-ins with the law to any degree, and particularly with those who have committed non-violent crimes and are struggling with the co-efficient of mental illness (including substance abuse) or those who have been dealt the short hand of being treated as a second-class citizen in our society for any number of reasons that have been proven to put one in a position to choose to commit (or at least be more prone to being prosecuted for committing) crimes or become dependent on substances…or both.
However, one thing that was mentioned last night and was celebrated as a victory kind of hit me in the gut and has stuck there like a stone ever since. One of the presenters stated that the laws have recently changed so those who are re-entering are able to delay their obligations to pay child support upon release. This is meant to help ease the burden of the formerly-incarcerated, but it made my head buzz. After listening to the panelists talk about the other debt collectors who required immediate attention upon release: bankers, student loan officers, and the prison system itself, which charges for monthly P.O. visits, among other things…it was stunning to me that the person/people who were expected to bear the brunt of easing the burden on the newly-released would be the children of the formerly-incarcerated. How on earth do we justify that? Is there no way to suspend college loan payments, mortgages, or credit card debt for a period after release? Do we really need to further burden the parent who has already been burdened by being the sole provider for a child while the other parent has been in jail? Is this what we call progress?
I guess it’s my experience as a single parent that informs my outrage over this. I mean, it’s bad enough that there are people out there who view child support as “indentured servitude” by the other parent. I hear so many stories of non-custodial parents who haven’t been incarcerated who actually have the fucking nerve to be irritated with the custodial parent for expecting them to, you know, earn a fucking living and pay their fair share of support, as if the custodial parent actually has a choice to do so. And now this from the state – this dismissal of the very real challenge of being the sole financial provider of children who have two TWO *TWO* parents. As a single parent with primary custody, I don’t have the option to opt-out, delay, or postpone taking care of my child’s everyday needs. I simply have to find a way.
And, while I know those who have been recently released from jail or prison have a significantly more difficult time finding a way, I feel if the state is compelled to make it an option for them to opt out, postpone, or delay these responsibilities, it ought to take responsibility on behalf of its recently released inmates and provide assistance to the co-parent of those it chooses to incarcerate. Anything less than that is flat out invalidating the challenges of those parents and children who are the collateral damage of our (in)justice system, and by association – it even manages to invalidate the need for all children to have the support of both of the people who chose to bring them into the world, whether they’ve been incarcerated or not.