To elucidate the institutional logic underpinning the child support system’s expectations of parents.
Compelling parental responsibility through punitive enforcement mechanisms is the central focus of child support system enforcement. Although much is known about noncustodial parents’ experiences in the system, less is known about how this site of state intervention shapes the definition and expectations of parenthood and family.
Observations in five courts and child support-related sites were conducted over 18 months. Interviews were also conducted with child support system workgroup members.
The racialized, gendered, and classed stereotypes that undergird the system’s definition of parental responsibility are grounded in controlling images of parenthood and family, prioritizing financial support above any other contributions of parents. Court officials wielded this expectation of parental responsibility to punish—or threaten to punish—noncustodial parents, resulting in significant material and symbolic consequences.
The carceral logic of parental responsibility in this site underpins punitive state policies, procedures, and practices around nonpayment of support and other acts of noncompliance, reproducing racialized, gendered, and classed social controls of parenthood and family. As a result of this logic, the child support system plays a significant role in shaping the institutions of parenthood and family, (re)produces the expansion of the carceral state, and contributes to broader family inequality.
Addressing family inequality should attend to the pervasiveness of the carceral logic of parental responsibility in the child support system and beyond, which has significantly oppressive consequences for parents and families.