In its 2011 ruling in Turner v. Rogers, the Supreme Court held that a nonpaying child support obligor may not be incarcerated in a civil contempt proceeding if he did not have the ability to pay the ordered support or the purge necessary to regain his freedom. The Turner case arose in South Carolina, a state in which civil contempt proceedings are a routine part of the child support enforcement process. The author observed child support contempt proceedings in South Carolina both before and after the Turner decision to assess the extent to which indigent obligors were being held in contempt and incarcerated despite their apparent inability to make the court-ordered payments. Findings from this study confirm that incarceration of indigent child support obligors such as Mr. Turner was common in South Carolina prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, and indicate that judicial treatment of indigent child support obligors remained essentially the same after the Turner decision was handed down.
Turner did contribute to a reduction in the incarceration of indigent obligors in South Carolina, but this reduction was due to an administrative response to the decision rather than a judicial one. Pre-screening procedures that were promoted by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement following Turner had the effect of averting judicial hearings for large numbers of indigent obligors, thus avoiding for those individuals any possibility of incarceration. Further reductions in the number of indigents going before the court should result from new OCSE regulations requiring steps to assure that child support awards more closely reflect obligors’ ability to pay, thus reducing noncompliance and contempt referrals.
Elizabeth Patterson, Turner in the Trenches: A Study of How Turner v. Rogers Affected Child Support Contempt Proceedings, 25 Geo. J. on Poverty L. Pol'y 75 (2017)