So who is really being punished here?
Like many single parents, I am faced with the dilemma of making the child-support payment, which I can’t afford, or using the money to actually take care of my daughter when she’s with me four days in any given week.
For the last decade, I have made a living as an author, freelance writer, motivational speaker and media consultant. Even with all my hustle, I have not earned more annually than when I worked full-time as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News in the late ’90s. Yet the courts have held me to that standard of income despite my not having worked as a full-time staff reporter since before my daughter was conceived.
The reality of harsh economic times apparently has not reached the likes of Daniele, who suggests to college- educated men with mounds of financial responsibility to get a job at Burger King or Walmart. She has an obsession with J.P. Mascaro & Sons, a waste-removal company based in Norristown. She mentioned them by name a dozen times in her courtroom rants as she sent numerous men off to jail. (Men who already had jobs, by the way.)
I watched that day as she threw several others into prison. These were men who tried unsuccessfully to explain why they had fallen behind on their payments. I wondered what good they were to their children behind the walls of a prison other than a warm-blooded body for the county to profit from.
At the end of the day, it is not about justice being served. It is very much about keeping the Montgomery County Correctional Facility filled to capacity. As violent and murderous criminals roam free, law enforcement is busy tracking down nonviolent child-support offenders and piling them on a gym floor in country prison. Bodies on the floor equal cold hard cash.
Companies such as J.P. Mascaro overwork and underpay inmates who are obligated to pay $140 a week to the prison for rent before a dime is allocated to their child-support debt. So, in six months the meter continues to run and a grossly insignificant amount of debt is chipped away. Eventually, the inmate is released and the child-support debt is even higher than when he entered the prison.
The winner in this scenario is Mascaro and the prison which both got paid while the children in the equation are separated from their fathers and are barely receiving enough to buy groceries.
The system certainly does nothing to foster happiness, peace and civility within the family structure. In the past four months, I have met men who are emotionally at the end of their ropes. One inmate, who I’ll call “Brian,” was filled with rage. He was a black man in his late 20s who had a major chip on his shoulder. “Fuck her and them kids,” he said. “That bitch is going to make me hurt her so I’ll just see the kids when they’re 18.” When you can see that rage in someone’s eyes, it’s time to be afraid.
My friend Thurayya Berry-Petteway spent four years working as a hearing officer for the Domestic Relations unit of Philadelphia Family Court. An altercation over child support caused her to take a different career path.
Petteway, who now works as a school psychologist, recalled an incident in 2007 when a disgruntled father began attacking the mother of his children with an aerosol can from her desk. Petteway had just informed him that his support payment amount was going up.
“He was kicking her and screaming ‘die bitch,’ and she was bleeding from her scalp,” Petteway recalled. “I had to take off six weeks due to stress after that incident. I loved my supervisors and my co-workers … but that system as a whole does not bring the family together, it just breaks them apart.”
My daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder due in part to our separation. It was the first time ever that her father was not there to throw her a pizza party at school on her birthday. That didn’t matter to Judge Daniele, because at the end of the day I am considered a deadbeat.
My first few nights in prison were spent on the floor of a sweltering basketball gym with 55 other inmates. Two industrial-sized fans blew hot air over our sweat-soaked bodies. There were no windows and both exit doors were closed. We were given thin blue mats, a set of sheets and a gray wool blanket, and told to find a spot on the court. I squeezed myself between a pot-bellied black man in his 60s and a guy named Vaun who I’d met earlier that day at the courthouse. Vaun and I were both in for child support and arrested within 20 minutes of each other.
We were served three meals a day, which we had to eat on the floor. A television sat on a metal cart in the far corner of the room. It was never turned off, and inmates crowded around it throughout the day and well into the night.
I had not been in the presence of so many heroin-addicted men since I moved from the Richard Allen Projects in August 1993. At least a dozen of them coming down from the dope-fiend high surrounded me on all sides. They moaned in pain and tossed and turned all night.
Some vomited while others shamelessly urinated in the water fountain or plastic cups because they could not contain their bladders until officers opened up the doors for a bathroom break.
It was nearly impossible to rest but I managed to fall off into a decent sleep on Sunday evening. Not long after I drifted off, I was awakened by the shouts of a pack of inmates. I rolled over on my pancake-thin blue mat to see what all of the commotion was about. It was Sun., July 17, my last night on the gym floor, and all eyes were on the television set. Many of the inmates were beside themselves because the nation’s most hated defendant, Casey Anthony, had been released from prison earlier that day.
I rolled back over and pulled the blanket over my head in sheer disgust at the thought that Anthony was as free as a sparrow, as I lay imprisoned for essentially being a bad father. All I could think about was my beautiful, sweet daughter and how that was supposed to be our weekend together.
Dinner with Luke Palladino