Assistant Professor Branden McLeod

Assistant Professors Kalen Flynn and Branden McLeod have received funding from UIC’s Center for Health Equity Research Chicago for their study of the scope and mechanisms of the child support system in Cook County as an entry point to incarceration for young African American men aged 20-39, and the impact of this system on their mental health, well-being, and family relationships.

“Chlece Walker-Neal-Murray, NFP Executive Director at Chicago Advocate Legal and JACSW doctoral student, brought to our attention the disproportionate number of Black fathers entering their office for legal advice, and that’s just the beginning of the problem,” says McLeod. “The main issue is fathers’ ability or inability to pay their child support order once it is initiated. So, we wanted to examine if and to what extent fathers’ inability to pay child support leads to arrest.”

“Essentially, we’re examining the child support system as an instrument of structural violence and the ways it impacts Black fathers’ well-being,” adds Flynn. “There has been research into the impact of child support arrears on families while a father is incarcerated, but there is not much knowledge how the system impacts fathers and their relationships with their families.”

McLeod explains that the study seeks a deeper understanding of the extent to which nonpayment of child support leads to incarceration, and fathers’ varying experiences with the civil court and domestic relations in Cook County, and with the Illinois Department of Health Care and Family Services. “The two systems don’t talk to each other. A father might be paying child support into one system, but still be penalized by the other system for not making payments,” adds Flynn. “You can lose state licenses, including your driver’s license, and if you hit a certain amount of arrears you get put on a sort of ‘most wanted list’. It can seriously impact a father’s overall well-being and familial relationships.”

The Study's Preliminary Findings

Assistant Professor Kalen Flynn

Preliminary findings from the study suggest that the court is focusing only on a father’s ability to pay child support, to the exclusion of other important factors. “Overall, the system is really not set up to unify or heal families at all,” says Flynn. “In our interviews with fathers, almost all have said that as soon as they were involved in the court system, their relationship with the co-parent become worse; the relationship became more transactional.“ McLeod adds that the fathers have said the study is highlighting their real socioemotional, familial, and economic capabilities and challenges. “Our hope is that the study’s findings will allow the court and child support system to better serve the entire family,” he says, “including recognizing fathers’ holistic contribution to the family and addressing fathers’ holistic needs.”

Affirmations: Fall 2021