(VM) – Virginia has a law on the books that requires the state Department of Social Services to seek child support payments from parents of juvenile offenders in custody, ostensibly to help cover the costs of housing and educating incarcerated youth.
It only brings in about $300,000 to $400,000 per year, a tiny fraction of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s total budget of roughly $232 million. But the impact on low-income families is no small matter, advocates say. That’s why state lawmakers are pushing to get rid of the practice altogether.
“It exacerbates existing racial and ethnic disparities,” said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said as he presented his bill to get rid of the child support rule.
The legislation passed the Democratic-led House of Delegates in a 58-40 vote earlier this month, picking up a handful of Republican votes along the way. It cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday on a party-line vote and will next head to the Senate Finance Committee.
In committee testimony, advocacy groups have argued the bill only creates more strain for families, and has little connection to the goal of rehabilitating young offenders.
“It just doesn’t make sense as far as helping that child be able to come back to an environment where they economically can improve their situation. And economics has everything to do with crime,” said Kezia Hendricks, who runs a Norfolk-based youth organization called Young Investors Group.
Amanda Silcox, legislative coordinator for RISE for Youth, a group that promotes alternatives to youth incarceration, told legislators it’s “truly outrageous that we have been charging families to incarcerate their children.”
“We already know Black and brown youth are disproportionately impacted by our criminal justice system,” Silcox said. “And this financial burden, which is then placed disproportionately on Black and brown families, exacerbates the racial wealth gap and places a tremendous strain on families at an already difficult time.”
During the Senate committee hearing, some legislators asked how the bill might affect pre-existing child support arrangements between parents of a child taken into DJJ custody.
Barbara Lacina, director of the Department of Social Services’ division of child support enforcement, said that under the current law, pre-existing child support payments shift to DJJ once the child is taken to the agency’s custody. Under the proposed bill, she said, those payments would instead go to “the custodial parent.”
That prompted a follow-up question from an incredulous-sounding Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, who voted against the bill.
“If I was paying child support and my child is in the custody of DJJ, I’d still be required to pay child support but the other parent would not have to pay that to the department during the time that they’re incarcerated or in custody? Is that accurate?,” McDougle said.
“Yes,” Lacina answered.
If passed, the bill would terminate existing child support orders dealing with payments to DJJ, without wiping clean outstanding debts owed as of June 30.