Humiliation As Motivation? Virginia Goes after Deadbeat Parents

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - The commonwealth of Virginia says shame is the name of the game when it comes to unpaid child support: Starting this month, the state will "brand" child-support scofflaws by immobilizing their cars with pink-and-blue boots. A sticker on the windshield will read, This vehicle has been seized by the sheriff for unpaid child support."

Nick Young, director of the Virginia Division of Child Support Enforcement, admits the state is banking on the fact that shame and embarrassment can be powerful motivators.

But Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, says the boot is "part of a whole trend to reverse the way we do criminal justice and civil justice to a system we were using in the 17th century. According to Willis, "This is the stockades. This is the public humiliation. It's a scarlet letter. It's a punishment by itself."

Many other states are considering similar "boot" systems to get delinquent parents to pay the child support they owe, but Virginia is the first to adopt a statewide program.

In Virginia, about 100,000 delinquent parents collectively owe $1.65 billion to some 552,000 children, according to state officials. They say parents will have plenty of notice to pay up before their cars are festooned in pink and blue.

But some observers say the burden is on the state to make sure that bureaucratic bungling doesn't cause undue embarrassment to parents who are making good-faith efforts to pay what they owe.