A proposed change in child support laws is designed to give many delinquent non-custodial parents a chance to stay out of prison is working its way through the state senate.

Senator Jeff Smith refers to the high number of children born out of wedlock as a "fatherhood epidemic." He points to a flood of criminal non-support cases in St.Louis city courts, for example, that are aggravated by a down-economy that has cost many fathers their jobs. He says those jobless, non-violent, fathers are finding themselves in court facing felony non-support charges because they’re not able to fulfill their child support orders that are hard to get changed when circumstances change.

He says some of the men were unable to contest the claim that they are the father of a child within the 30-days they had to protest. That failure lets a court rule them liable for child support for 18 years. Smith says their refusal to make the payments or their inability to pay in tough economic times can be a felony under present law. "If they end up with felony convictions and jail time they definitely cannot pay child support from jail. And when they come out they’ll have an even harder time doing so because it’s so difficult to land a decent job with a felony record," he says.

Smith proposes letting circuit courts establish special dockets to provide education, job training, work programs, and substance abuse treatments to help the parent find work, modify support obligations, more effectively challenge paternity, and get back to making payments, if warranted, instead of going to prison.

The senate has given it first-round approval.


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