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Parents who default on child support payments don’t generally inspire a lot of sympathy; the notion of the “deadbeat dad” has long been fixed in the public consciousness, with punitive public policies to match. But the image of the callous debt-shirker doesn’t always fit reality. Nationwide, the bulk of people who owe child support are low-income fathers who lack the capacity to pay. Their ever-growing debt can wind up serving no one well — including the children those payments are intended to help.

Unpaid debt is a sizable issue in Massachusetts, where the Department of Revenue handles about 232,000 child support cases each year. About 151,000 of those cases — 65 percent — involve parents who owe back pay. Those numbers suggest that the problem could often be structural: charges that don't realistically match a parent's financial means.

Interest and penalty payments can exacerbate the problem. The DOR charges 0.5 percent interest and a 0.5 percent penalty on each month of unpaid child support; 98,000 people currently face those charges. That's not compounded, but still, by the end of a year, a parent could be paying an interest rate of 12 percent — more, advocates note, than the best stock market investments are likely to yield. Continued nonpayment can lead to larger consequences: driver license suspension, or jail time on charges of civil contempt. These policies, designed to motivate, can make it increasingly difficult for parents to hold jobs, leading to even more debt.

To get out of this spiral, parents have limited options. They can appeal to the courts, which set child support payments in the first place, but change can take a long time to wind through the system. And a federal law, enacted with good intentions in the 1980s, limits what courts can do to modify debt that has already accrued. This can cause a particular burden for incarcerated parents, who can come out of prison owing tens of thousands of dollars.

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Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Revenue say they currently work with incarcerated parents to establish paternity and set up payment plans. They also say they steer people who meet certain criteria — such as unemployment, disability, and incarceration — to interest-exemption and interest-waiver programs. But they note that funneling parents to these programs can be a challenge: Sometimes parents who are behind on payments don't return calls or answer letters to explain that their circumstances have changed.

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That's why it's worth examining what other states are doing to address this problem on the front end, treating child support debtors not as deadbeats, but as parents trying to claw themselves back from the financial brink and maintain relationships with their children. In recent years, Virginia has revisited the formula upon which payments are set, and has been building a comprehensive program that helps parents find work and counseling.

Governor Charlie Baker has touted the benefits of bringing different agencies together to solve complex problems; this is an issue that cries out for a similar approach. There are also steps the Commonwealth can take without legislation, such as changing its policies on interest and penalties; in 2014, to help parents catch up with back payments, Wisconsin cut its interest payments on child support arrears from 12 percent annually to 6 percent. Massachusetts should continue to do what it can to encourage parents to pay — particularly, those parents who can. But the system should meet reality and acknowledge what happens when debt becomes an end as well as a means.

Related:

How 'deadbeats' can still be good dads