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How Philly fathers are winding up in debtors' prison

For many fathers, child-support debt "becomes this cycle of nonpayment and incarceration. … How does that help the children?"

Rel Dowdell (left) speaks with Ogbonna Hagins in the film “Where’s  Daddy?” Hagins, a former schoolteacher, is now a self-employed scrapper and junk collector who says the work has freed him up to be a better father.
Rel Dowdell (left) speaks with Ogbonna Hagins in the film “Where’s Daddy?” Hagins, a former schoolteacher, is now a self-employed scrapper and junk collector who says the work has freed him up to be a better father.Read moreRel Dowdell

Like many freelance writers, Mister Mann Frisby was hit hard by the recession. Unlike most, he found himself one morning surrounded by armed marshals standing over his breakfast table.

"That was the worst part: When they came to the house, guns drawn, while my daughter was eating breakfast. We were getting ready to go to school on a typical Tuesday," said Frisby, 42, of Germantown. "My daughter was traumatized by that whole experience."

What brought the law to his house that morning? Child-support debt. Frisby thinks of himself as an engaged dad, not a deadbeat. His daughter even lives with him half the week. But his child-support arrears now total about $19,000. Over the last decade, his encounters with the child-support system have destroyed his credit and even dragged him into jail — three times, the longest for 14 weeks.

"It's like a nightmare that keeps spiraling," said Frisby, who has written for the Inquirer and Daily News. "If your child support is $585 a month and you're raising a child, you're faced with impossible decisions, like: Do we eat? Do I pay rent? Or do I pay child support?"

A new documentary by Philadelphia filmmaker Rel Dowdell called Where's Daddy? aims to lay bare the scars left by this system, which he said has particularly afflicted African American men and which has often driven a wedge between them and their children.

"Most of the African American men I spoke to in this film you can see it's been a deep wound," Dowdell said. "There's embarrassment with this situation, and there's pain."

The film, featuring interviews with fathers ranging from men living in poverty to former Eagles wide receiver Fred Barnett and the rapper Freeway, premieres Friday with a screening at the Kimmel Center. Dowdell expects wider distribution in February.

It's a first documentary for Dowdell, whose previous features include the 2012 film Changing the Game. He began researching the topic after reading about Michael Robinson, a diabetic man who died in a Missouri jail while incarcerated for failing to pay child support. He teamed with executive producer Melody Forrester, an entertainment lawyer whose first job out of law school was working on behalf of children in Family Court.

Forrester said that back then, she often took the side of the mother. But more recently, representing some of her male clients in Family Court cases, her perspective began to shift.

"Most of the men step up to court unrepresented. They're floundering, and they don't know how it works. So many times, a father is not able to pay court-ordered child support. It could be something as simple as, when the order was made, he was working at SEPTA, but four years later, he lost that job, and he's working at McDonald's — and he didn't know he had the right to go back to court and seek to modify the order."

Those who are more than 30 days or $500 behind in their payments can be found in contempt and locked up. Shanese Johnson, who has long represented parents in Family Court in Philadelphia, said it was routine for parents found in contempt to be incarcerated 30, 60, or 90 days. Even six months is not unheard of.

In that time, said Forester, a man's likely to lose his job, and perhaps his home. "It becomes this cycle of nonpayment and incarceration. … How does that help the children?"

The impact of punitive practices around child support has been a subject of increased attention in recent years. Arrears nationwide exceed $100 billion, a figure that has grown exponentially since most states began charging interest in the 1990s, and researchers have linked high child-support arrears with men leaving the formal labor market.

"It really destroys parenting for a huge number of poor men," said New York University sociologist Lynne Haney, who's writing a book about incarcerated fathers and child-support debt.

In many states, child-support debt continues to mount while men are locked up. In Pennsylvania, men can petition to have enforcement suspended, but it's a slow process. Many men, Johnson said, don't have the knowledge or wherewithal to petition for that relief; even when they do, it's a process that takes months. Meanwhile, being in arrears can trigger the suspension of their driver's licenses, making it hard to get to work or to visit their kids. Johnson has had clients who lost their jobs because of such suspensions, setting them even further back.

"Child support and incarceration work together to create what I call these loops of disadvantage," Haney said. "Incarceration exacerbates child-support debt and all kinds of debt and leads to economic marginality. The opposite is true, too: Child-support debt actually exacerbates criminal-justice involvement — because a lot of the time, men deal with their child-support arrears by engaging in criminal activity."

Other times, paying off child-support debt can exhaust a father's resources — giving him another reason to stay away.

"A lot of kids expect their parents to buy stuff. In U.S. culture, one of the ways you show love and care is consumption," she said. When men can't, "they often just avoid seeing their kids altogether, because they can't be the parent they want to be."

Not every parent who's behind on child support, Johnson said, is in such desperate straits. When judges threaten to jail them for contempt, about 50 percent of the fathers she deals with can scrape together the money. "The other 50 percent don't have it to pay."

She's often frustrated by her clients. "People need to make better decisions," she said.

But the point Forrester and Dowdell are trying to make is that the current way of punishing them isn't achieving the desired result.

"I had a client who was jailed for nonpayment about a week ago. He spent a week in jail before he was able to work out a new deal and be released. He had two jobs; he lost both of them. Now, he had to commit to a payment he doesn't know if he can make," Forrester said.

"The impact is, often the child is not served."