Some months, when Rebecca Greenwell’s emphysema makes it too difficult to go to work, or she doesn’t land enough day labor jobs, she comes up short on her 20-year-old daughter’s child support.
So her daughter helps pay it.
If Greenwell misses payments, the county can lock her up for six months. She did spend three days in jail several years ago for falling behind on child support, and the thought of it now gives her panic attacks.
“It was hell,” Greenwell told The Kansas City Star in an interview earlier in January at the rented duplex she shares with her boyfriend in Nevada, Missouri.
“I’m trying, I’m doing the best I can do,” the 48-year-old said. “But it’s not at their satisfaction and six months in county is not something that I think is fair.”
Though it may seem outlandish that her daughter pays her own child support, Greenwell said she’s grateful for the help.
She’s one of thousands of Missourians at risk of going to jail or even prison for failing to pay child support.
Last year across the state, nearly 3,000 people were charged with criminal nonsupport. It was the 10th most common offense for new prison sentences, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections, which locked up 137 prisoners for child support-related cases in 2018.
In recent years, several Missouri counties have moved away from filing charges on child support cases, leading to a decline in convictions statewide. However, some prosecutors continue to take an aggressive approach, contending that parents have a legal and moral duty to pay or face criminal cases.
Missouri has also suspended the driver’s licenses of about 40,000 people because of unpaid child support, a practice the state is being sued over.
Advocates for reform say most parents aren’t deliberately evading their responsibilities and are being punished by the state for being poor.
“We have people who are clearly indigent, clearly insolvent, in prison solely for not paying child support,” said Matthew Mueller, special public defender for the Missouri State Public Defender system. “We need to ask ourselves whether we as a state, as citizens of Missouri, believe it’s appropriate or fair to be sending poor people to prison solely for not paying child support.”
Some state lawmakers agree and are open to easing the consequences for unpaid child support. But efforts in recent years have failed.
The origins of Greenwell’s case go back to April 2001 when she got divorced and was ordered to pay $185 per month to support her son and daughter.
For about four-and-a-half years, Greenwell said, she was employed. The child support payments were garnished from her paychecks.
But over the years, health problems, including emphysema and bulging discs, have hindered her ability to work consistently.
“There were times when I didn’t pay when I wasn’t working,” she concedes.
She still owes about $1,800 in back payments. Her kids are now 20 and 22 years old.
In November 2012, Greenwell was charged with misdemeanor criminal nonsupport. Her probation was revoked in 2016 when she failed to pay, which was a condition of the probation. Another violation could mean a six-month stint at the Vernon County jail.
“It’s unreal,” she said. “Jail time — I don’t think that’s something that I really need. Six months is a long time for $1,800 when I could be working.”
Greenwell takes day work when she can. Recently she spent a couple days laying sod along sidewalks in Nevada. Now she is working on an inspection line at a pecan plant in nearby Deerfield.
Greenwell said she sends money orders when she can. Usually they are partial payments, and sometimes she sends more than one a month.
“If I can pay little by little, which when I got it, that’s what I do,” she said.
Vernon County Prosecutor Brandi McInroy said her office’s goal “is just to get child support paid,” but declined to comment on Greenwell’s case.
More than 375 people are serving time in Missouri prisons on cases related to child support, according to Mueller, the public defender.
The Missouri Department of Corrections spends about $21,900 on each inmate, each year.
One of those inmates is Joshua Johnson, 38.
Johnson had been a happily married father, committed to providing for his two children, he said in a letter sent from the Maryville Treatment Center in northwest Missouri.
But he was arrested several times and was convicted of sexual misconduct, stealing, property damage and other offenses.
Johnson and his wife divorced in 2013.
While in jail, he began receiving monthly bills for $480 in child support.
“Once released, as you can imagine, I was behind thousands of dollars,” Johnson said.
Owing more than $11,000, he was charged with criminal nonsupport in Warren County.
“Struggling and unemployed, I was put on probation for a class D felony alleging that I knowingly failed to provide adequate support for my two children,” he wrote.
Johnson’s back child support continued to accumulate and his probation was revoked. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Johnson, Greenwell and another man, Timothy Wolf, have filed appeals to fight their child support convictions.
Their public defender, Mueller, says they are indigent but judges have ignored part of the law that says a defendant’s ability to pay can be considered in criminal cases.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which represents the State of Missouri in those cases, declined to comment.
Wolf, 38, was charged in Buchanan County, which stands out in Missouri for prosecuting a large number of child support cases.
The county accounted for about 10 percent of the state’s felony child support cases and 15 percent of the misdemeanors, according to data from the Missouri Department of Social Services.
The county makes up only about 1.5 percent of the state’s population.
“Buchanan County is by far the worst,” Mueller said. “They send the most people to prison over this issue.”
Last year, Buchanan County Prosecutor Ron Holliday’s office filed 149 felony nonsupport cases and 214 misdemeanor nonsupport cases.
“My position on prosecuting criminal nonsupport is simple: people have a legal as well as moral obligation to support their children,” Holliday said. “If they have a legally enforceable court order to pay child support, it’s our obligation to look at those cases.”
Defendants have several opportunities to start paying before facing incarceration, including working with a jobs counselor, he said.
“When somebody goes to jail or prison, we’ve failed,” Holliday said. “We’ve failed in what we’re trying to do. What we want them to do is to pay child support.”
Wolf was sentenced to four years in prison after his probation was revoked in September 2015 for failing to pay child support.
The head of the public defender’s office in St. Joseph, which serves Buchanan County, said many of her clients aren’t able to afford the child support payments.
“I really have an issue with criminalizing poor people for not paying their child support because it’s not that they are choosing not to pay, it’s they really just don’t have the resources to pay it,” district defender Shayla Marshall said.
Instead, Marshall said, cases should be filed in civil court.
Several jurisdictions, including Jackson County, have gone that route. Over the past decade, the number of criminal convictions in Missouri has declined by 65 percent.
When a parent doesn’t pay, a civil contempt action can be filed, Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Mike Mansur said. During that process, employment services are available to parents.
A small number of misdemeanor cases are still filed, Mansur said, and can end with a diversion or payment agreement.
Camese Bedford, a Navy veteran, was barely getting by on disability in St. Louis when the state suspended his driver’s license for unpaid child support.
That made it harder for him to get a job and spend time with his daughter.
Bedford is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed in March 2019 by Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. The organization alleges that the suspensions amount to “wealth-based discrimination” and are unconstitutional.
Relying on buses for transportation meant most communication with his 6-year-old daughter ended up being over the phone.
“Mr. Bedford believes that his daughter is depressed as a result of his inability to spend time with her,” the lawsuit said. “She had told him that she thinks she is going to have to get a new daddy even though she does not want a new one.”
In the summer of 2019, 41,903 non-custodial parents had suspended licenses, according to a snapshot of data filed with the lawsuit.
“The state cannot penalize someone just for being poor,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director at Equal Justice Under Law, which has litigated the issue in five states.
“We think the vast majority of the 40,000 suspensions are people who literally cannot afford to make the payments. We’re not dealing with people who are refusing to pay and they have money hidden away somewhere.”
Other states, such as Texas and Pennsylvania, have taken steps to separate license suspensions from debt.
In Kansas, 7,226 drivers have a restricted license because of unpaid child support. But they are still allowed to drive to work and school, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue.
“A license is really going to add to productivity and it doesn’t make sense to remove a license for non-driving related reasons,” Telfeyan said.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit’s resolution could come from a judge or through a settlement with the Family Support Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
Change could also come by way of the Missouri General Assembly.
State Sen. Karla May said she is confident the law on driver’s license suspensions can be amended this legislative session.
The St. Louis Democrat is sponsoring a bill that would allow evidence to be presented at suspension hearings, and for judges to make decisions based on a person’s ability to pay child support as well as their transportation needs.
“Right now they don’t have that option,” May said. “Basically when they come into the court, it’s just a quick procedure and they suspend the license right away and they can’t go into discussion.”
This measure “gives them due process,” she said.
Similar legislation is sponsored in the Missouri House by Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron.
Last year, a bill was proposed outlawing incarceration for failure to pay child support. It didn’t pass.
May said prison doesn’t fix the problem and it costs taxpayers thousands of dollars.
“Being sent to prison — nobody’s going to get anything,” she said. “But at the same time, we haven’t figured out a way to make people be responsible. Now some people are just poor and they can’t afford it, you have those, but then you have those who can afford it who are outright being not in compliance. But I don’t think prison solves that problem at all.”
Rep. Sheila Solon, R-St. Joseph, chairs the Children and Families Committee.
“I have some real concerns about when we throw people in jail or when we take away their driving rights because all that’s going to do is either help them not be able to find a job or keep the job they have,” she said.
However, change needs to be balanced, she cautioned.
“Sometimes the pendulum swings too far one way and I think at one point in time, we were maybe a little overzealous in incarcerating individuals and we just want to make sure we don’t swing too far the other way,” Solon said.
Mays’s bill has been sent to the Professional Registration Committee. The legislative session runs through May 15.