A sharp rapping startled Michael Casner awake around 4 a.m., and he stumbled to the front door. There, Montgomery County sheriff's deputies were waiting impatiently in the cold February night.
"Apparently, they were knocking for a good 10 minutes. They told me they were about to take down the door," Casner, 29, of Spring City said.
His 5-year-old daughter was asleep upstairs. The deputies told him he'd better find a babysitter fast: He was under arrest.
Then, they hauled him to a police barracks, where he sat in a cell for about six hours until a caseworker came by and released him into the frigid morning. Since he didn't have his phone or wallet, he said, he walked eight miles to his sister's house in the T-shirt and sweatpants he'd been picked up in and caught a ride home from there.
The reason for all this, according to the sheriff's office, was that Casner was a "deadbeat" who owed $1,323.99 in child support.
Only, Casner says, he is not a deadbeat. He has primary custody of three of his four kids. For the fourth, child support had been deducted from his paycheck each week, until he switched from a temp agency to full-time work as a mason last fall. He called the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Office to straighten out the transition — he couldn't appear in person, he explained, as he had to be at work, in part to earn money for child support. Instead, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
It's become a monthly routine for deputies in Montgomery and other Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties to fan out in overnight sweeps, set on capturing parents like Casner who are in contempt of court — for failing to either pay child support or appear for court hearings, or both. Then, their names are published in press releases and local newspapers, and their perp walks are seen in evening news segments. Some are released the next day; others are held in jail for weeks or months at a time.
>> READ MORE: Philly fathers describe a modern-day debtor's prison
The raids reflect not only a nationwide ballooning of overdue child-support debt — it has increased by 1,000 percent since 1986, to a collective $114 billion, according to the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement — but also a trend toward the criminalization of debtors. One recent analysis published in the sociology journal Socius found 14 percent of child-support debtors end up in jail by the time their children are 9 years old.
Sheriffs say the sweeps are necessary to enforce payment orders and deter others from falling behind.
However, the sweeps typically bring in only a small fraction of the debt owed. Five large sweeps publicized in local papers across New Jersey netted 1,567 people who owed $35 million in 2016 and 2017, but according to reports, brought in an average of just $218 per person.
Critics say that's because many of those who don't pay simply can't afford to do so. They liken the situation to debtor's prison, arguing that the cycle of arrests can itself be destabilizing, causing some men to lose their jobs and housing and fall further into debt. A 2007 Urban Institute study of child-support debt in Pennsylvania and eight other states found 70 percent of all arrears were owed by people who reported income of $10,000 or less annually.
"The complaint against our office is we spend a lot of resources doing this and the amount of money we get back is not worth the benefit," Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny said. "But I was elected to protect public safety, and one of my priorities is children — in fact, my biggest priority. So I have no hesitation about doing these raids. Even if we don't get the money back from these parents, it can act as a deterrent."
Countywide, there are about 212 debtors who together owe $4 million in child support. His office conducts overnight raids monthly and has for at least five years, usually sending out two teams of eight to 10 deputies, who are paid overtime for a midnight to 8 a.m. shift.
Most recently, in late August, the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Office — part of the county Family Court that is responsible for determining and enforcing support orders — ran an amnesty program to encourage debtors to come in and work out payment plans. Only a few people had responded midway through the amnesty, said the office's director, Gary Kline, who did not respond to follow-up inquiries after the amnesty concluded. Those who didn't show were at risk of yet another warrant sweep, the sheriff promised.
Raids take place year-round, but sheriffs often publicize them around Father's Day, Valentine's Day, or back-to-school time.
In Philadelphia — where city officials have publicized a concerted effort to reduce the jail population by more than one-third in the past two years — Sheriff Jewell Williams held a news conference to announce a warrant sweep of 17 fugitives, including seven people whose child-support arrears totaled $157,000. Williams did not release names but did invite news cameras to film the parents as they piled out of a sheriff's van, handcuffed, early on the morning of Friday, Aug. 24.
"We thought it was most appropriate to get some of these outstanding child-support warrants served because school starts Monday," he said at a news conference that day, describing fugitives hiding in basements, behind water heaters, to evade detection.
A spokesperson said that it was not known how much overtime was spent on the raid and that the office would not release information on how many personnel participated. The office did not respond to questions about whether the raid led to payment agreements for child-support debtors.
It's unknown how often children are at home during child-support raids and how often deputies make forced entries. Policies vary from one department to the next. Delaware County Chief Deputy Michael Donohue said his teams are allowed to enter a home with a warrant and probable cause. In Gloucester County, which runs regular child-support warrant sweeps, deputies will leave a note on the door if no one answers, Undersheriff Andre Bay said. "Some of these people will get word and try to reach out and make good, so they don't get incarcerated."
Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University-Camden, pointed to a protocol published by the International Chiefs of Police urging officials to avoid arresting parents while children are present.
"If kids are witnessing the arrest, it's going to cause trauma — there's no question," she said.
"What we're starting to understand in the neuroscience field is that the impact of trauma on brain development is actually causing deterioration in the architecture of the brain," she said. "What I want to understand is, what is it that is so urgent in the development and planning of the raids that would be worth the chance that this is going to compound difficulties for kids and create short- and long-term negative impact?"
There is no doubt that child-support raids will pick up true deadbeats.
Among the worst, said Sarah Katz of the Family Law Litigation Clinic at Temple University, are abusive partners who "will routinely not pay child support and force plaintiff to file for contempt — and then pay when they get to court — as a way to keep a connection to the survivor."
But even those who've seen the worst domestic-relations cases say it may be time to reexamine whether the criminal-justice system is the best venue to address child-support debt.
One problem, said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director at the Pennsylvania ACLU, is that judges often jail people without holding proper contempt hearings: "You're only in contempt if you're able to pay and chose not to pay. In Philadelphia, as elsewhere, we find judges are not open to hearing that people can't pay."
But more than that, she said, "Judges are not really good at being debt collectors. They're good at threatening to put people in jail, but they don't have a lot of other tools to get people on track with their debt. It's a system that isn't actually very efficient at collecting money and can be really devastating for people when they fall on hard times."
Domestic-relations officials do have a number of tools, however, including the ability to attach wages, seize bank accounts, work out payment plans, and make referrals to job-placement programs. Kline said his Montgomery County office does all of that and conducts extensive outreach before petitioning for a contempt hearing.
"We will not send somebody before the judge who doesn't have the ability to pay," he said.
"All we want them to do is talk to us," Kline said of the debtors. He acknowledges that Casner did try to talk with his office, reaching out by phone in October 2017.
Casner — who had been in arrears after becoming unemployed a while back but was keeping up with a payment plan until the issue with his paycheck set him behind again — was told he'd have to appear in person. "He advised the staff he would not be appearing because he is working, and the court issued the warrant," Kline said.
In the end, Casner missed a day's work — and about $200 in pay — due to his arrest but didn't lose his job. (Kline confirmed Casner is now current with his payments.)
Only the next day did Casner learn his run-in with the sheriff wasn't over: He was listed in the newspaper as a deadbeat.
"They were blasting my name for no reason, making me out to be a bad guy, when I'm not," he said. "I'm a good father to my kids, and I pay my child support."
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push towards economic justice. See all of our reporting at https://brokeinphilly.org