Growing numbers of fathers are being sent to prison for missed child maintenance payments, prompting complaints that the sentences are disproportionate and undermine any chance of dads supporting their children.
At least 50 parents are expected to serve sentences for non-payment of monies owed to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (parent body to the Child Support Agency) in the last financial year, double the number three years ago.
The majority of cases involve fathers missing payments to support a child from a previous relationship. The number of parents getting suspended sentences – and therefore criminal records – each year has also risen.
Between April 2007 and March 2008, 25 people were sent to prison for missed payments and 480 were given suspended sentences. Figures for the first half of 2010/11 show that 35 parents were imprisoned and 635 had suspended sentences: the final tally is expected to be at least 50 and 900 respectively.
Legal experts say typical sentences for debts are 48 days and the full term is served. In effect, this makes them equivalent to terms given for serious crimes, including assault and theft.
Craig Pickering, of Families Need Fathers, said: "How can a father or mother care and provide for their children if they are stuck in prison? It is imperative that child maintenance is seen in the context of looking after the child's best interests in every way. A parent is more than a walking wallet."
The Child Support Agency (CSA) became notorious for its disorganisation. Since its launch in April 1993 it has fallen some £3.8bn short of its target for monies due from absent parents. Critics say that instead of prioritising the worst offenders they are simply picking off soft targets.
In one case, the CSA has applied to imprison a father whose missing payment is just over £700, despite the fact that there are many owing tens of thousands of pounds who have received no sanction at all.
Stephen Lawson, a solicitor specialising in child maintenance at Forshaws Davies Ridgway, said: "There are huge concerns about whether it's ever right to imprison anyone for a debt; debtors' prisons went out in the 1800s. But it's also hard to understand what the CSA's policy is on debt; they seem to pick on people in an arbitrary manner."
Michael, a father of three from Cheshire who did not want to give his surname, was sent to prison for six weeks last summer after missing back payments of child support for his oldest son, Ben, who is now 22.
"I got a knock on my door last year and was bundled into a police van and taken to court. They had been writing to me at the wrong address and I never knew. I was never given the chance to arrange a way of paying.
"I was put in a category B prison with violent offenders. I still have nightmares about it. The irony is, when I got locked up I couldn't afford to pay for my two younger children, who I've always sent money for with an arrangement outside the CSA. My kids were upset they weren't able to see me all summer. I lost my job and have only just got work again, for a third of the salary. How will I pay now?"
A CSA spokeswoman said: "It is highly unusual for anyone to be sent to prison for the non-payment of child maintenance. Magistrates must be satisfied that a parent has wilfully refused or culpably neglected to meet their financial responsibilities."