Fathers, Fugitives, by Santi Elijah Holley

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, May 28th, 2015

"...he couldn’t bear to return to jail for unpaid child support."

santi holley essay fathers child support nailed magazine
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I was eight years old the first time my father went to jail. He went to jail for failure to pay child support, something I couldn’t, at that age, wrap my head around. I lived with my mother for the most part, staying with my father on weekends. My father lived at home with his mother, in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other’s business and everyone stayed out of each other’s business. It never seemed particularly disreputable or out-of-the-ordinary that my father, a forty-something-year-old man, lived with his mother, didn’t have a regular job, and came home late at night, every night, smelling like gin and menthol cigarettes. He was, to me, as supportive a father as anyone else’s.

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He called me from jail that first time. Before he was allowed to speak to me, the operator asked if I was willing to accept a call from an inmate. I hadn’t yet realized who this inmate was, but I said yes, because it sounded important. My father’s voice came through. He wanted to let me know he was OK, but I wouldn’t be able to stay with him that weekend. He told me not to blame my mother. I pictured him in a cell, behind iron bars, surrounded by criminals. I pictured him being led in handcuffs to the telephone, punching the numbers, waiting for the ring, and then hearing his son’s voice, confused, saying, “Yes, I accept the call.”

Of course, I blamed my mother, immediately. I shouted at her, asked her why she would do that to my father. I told her he hadn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t even have a job, how was he expected to pay child support? I told her I didn’t need any money from him. I realize now, many years later, that I wasn’t the one who needed the support. My mother had been raising two sons on her own (my older brother from an earlier marriage, whose father apparently provided the proper support). I learned, also many years later, that my father’s incarceration was not carried out at my mother’s bidding, and, even if she were to magnanimously absolve my father of his financial duties, the law would not grant him that same pardon.

My father was in jail twice more, for the same offense. He was finally relieved of his responsibilities only after I became a legal adult and moved out of my mother’s house. He eventually moved out of his mother’s house, too, picking up odd jobs here and there. When he had it, he would send me money. It was usually a fifty-dollar bill, sometimes more, and he would always send it in cash. Each time I got a card from him, and found that fifty tucked inside, I knew even that amount was a burden. But he was doing what he could, even after the law had long ago forgotten about him, and jail was no longer a constant threat.

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I’ve been thinking about that time more often, after the recent death of Walter L. Scott, in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott had also been in jail multiple times, up to fifteen days at one point, for failure to pay child support. Like my father, Scott worked odd jobs when he could find them, but what money he made was not enough to keep up with his payments. Unable to hold a job because of his frequent arrests and incarceration, unable to make child support payments because he couldn’t hold a job, then locked up again because of his failure to make child support payments, Scott was stuck in a Kafkaesque cycle. A father of four, Scott’s unpaid child support amount had grown to over $18,000 at the time of his death. A warrant was issued for his arrest.

According to a 2009 survey, one out of every eight inmates in South Carolina was jailed for failure to pay child support. In Michigan, where my father and I are from, failure to pay child support can result in a felony, carrying a possible punishment of up to four years in prison or a fine of up to $2,000. If the father is employed, up to 50% of his net income can be deducted for child support, and up to 65% for his child’s health care insurance. Walter Scott was reportedly working as a temporary forklift driver at the time of his death. My father worked part-time at a corner store down the street from his house. It would seem as though it were more profitable to stay unemployed.

I do not suggest fathers shouldn’t be held accountable, financially and legally, for supporting their children and the mothers of their children. To place the entire burden on the mother would be insurmountably cruel. My mother put herself through graduate school, while working as a manager in a department store and raising two boys. I don’t know how much support she was technically allowed under the law, but I am certain it wasn’t enough. The burden on fathers, however, is not only monetary. The emotional cost falls on the whole family, but most heavily on the children. I was devastated to hear my father’s voice, talking to me from inside jail. Though he didn’t pay child support, he paid his dues. He bore no grudge against my mother or me, he served his time, time and time again. I still have my father in my life. Walter Scott’s children aren’t as fortunate.

On the morning of April 4, when Walter Scott ran from Officer Michael Slager, following a routine traffic stop, he made a decision, one that he may or may not have decided on prior to this confrontation. It is now believed that Scott ran from Officer Slager because he couldn’t bear to return to jail for unpaid child support. Perhaps he knew the risk in his decision, perhaps not. But on that morning, two men showed their cowardice to the world. Those eight bullets, fired by Officer Slager into Walter Scott’s back as he ran, were much too high a cost for any father to pay.

Walter Scott was a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. He had gotten engaged to his girlfriend weeks before his death. In a photo provided to the New York Daily News, Scott can be seen sitting, surrounded by his four children—three sons and a daughter. Standing behind him, his daughter, Samantha, rests her hands on her father’s shoulders. Walter, Jr., his son, wears an oversized gray sport coat, almost identical to the one worn by his father. Walter Scott and his children are facing the camera, smiling. It is a simple portrait of a family, no less complicated or less loving than any other.

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Not long ago, my father, a Vietnam War veteran, came into some money. He, with the help of my mother, successfully petitioned the U.S. government to receive monthly payments—apology money for willfully exposing him and thousands of his fellow soldiers to poisonous chemicals during the war, the effects from which he still suffers. He doesn’t have to work—he’s too sick now to work, anyway—and, though he is by no means rich, he has more money than he likely has ever had in his life. I still receive cards in the mail from him, but, instead of a lone fifty-dollar bill tucked inside a card, there will be a couple hundred dollars, sometimes more, still in cash. He and I have become closer over the years than we have ever been, and he and my mother, after putting everything behind them, have become close friends. He will frequently offer her money, too, though they joke that he’s got a lot of catching up to do.

More important than the cards or the money is the fact that I still have him in my life. I can call him up and talk to him. I can visit him and get to know the man he is, as opposed to the criminal he was painted as being. He can make amends for his failings in my youth, and I can forgive him. He can call me anytime he wants, from anywhere he happens to be, and I will always accept his call.

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Header image courtesy of The Guardian.

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Santi Elijah Holley essay nailed magazineSanti Elijah Holley’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in VICE, Tin House, Monkeybicycle, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other periodicals. He is a freelance writer for the Portland Mercury, and works in the Publicity department at Powell’s Books. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.