Divorced dad hunger strikes to protest child support laws | News | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press.
Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters.
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984.
Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.


Divorced dad hunger strikes to protest child support laws


Just prior to being sent to jail for contempt of court related to his child support, Kenyon Eastin wrote the judge a scathing letter. In it, Eastin describes the family law system as “a cartoon written by a 3-year-old” and accuses the judge of favoring his ex-wife. Eastin’s attorney almost certainly would have advised him to cut the vitriol or not send the letter (pdf) at all, but Eastin says he can’t afford a lawyer. Though some lawyers say it may violate federal law, the court did not appoint an attorney to represent him, either. Fed up with the system, Eastin has refused to eat for three weeks, since he entered the Tooele County Jail on May 14.

While on his hunger strike—which ended June 4 because he was concerned for his health—he estimates he went from 225 pounds down to about 190 or 195. He’s still in jail and hasn’t been able to weigh himself. Three times per day, jailers put food in front of him, Eastin said. “They were making sure I had the opportunity to eat.”

Like a lot of parents in his situation, the 41-year-old retired Navy seaman is the ink blot of a Rorschach test: he could be viewed as a “dead beat” or “beat dead” dad, depending on one’s sympathies. According to court documents, he owes nearly $8,000 in back child support and $2,000 in fees to his ex-wife’s attorney. During 2009, however, he made monthly $525 payments toward his current obligations and even paid $500 above that amount toward his arrears. Eastin “stipulated,” or agreed, while in mediation in early 2009, to pay $275 per month toward his arrears above his normal $525 monthly obligation, but he says his “agreement” was anything but.

“I felt like it was me against three people,” Eastin says, those people being his ex-wife, her attorney and the mediator. “[The mediator] said, ‘if he doesn’t agree to this, I’ll call the sheriff right now.’”

Eastin says his child support obligations have never been commensurate with his actual wages and he’s been unable to navigate the family law system to effect a modification. He fears he’s being set up to fail and will return to jail again. He was already jailed in February 2009, also for child support issues.

Repeatedly accused of being “voluntarily underemployed,” Eastin worked as a financial analyst at AG Edwards five years ago, making about $70,000 per year but quit and tried to start his own business. Since then, he’s been self-employed painting house numbers on curbs for about $30,000 per year, he says. He divorced in 2005, when his twins were 11—they’re now 16. His wife has custody, but Eastin’s fiancée, Niki Hammond, says the kids spend about 50 percent of their time with their dad. Since December 2005, Eastin’s child support has been $800 per month.

Eastin’s ex-wife and her attorney, Gary Buhler, did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment.

Attorney Jeff Rifleman became aware of Eastin’s case earlier this month. He was among about 20 supporters who gathered in front of the Tooele County Courthouse May 28 for a rally to support Eastin. 

Rifleman graduated from law school in 2009 after about a decade of dealing with his own divorce, child support and visitation issues. Rifleman admits he has only seen some of the documents in Eastin’s case, but partially blames 3rd District Judge Stephen Henriod for that. Rifleman says a document detailing the judge’s conclusions about the facts about why Eastin was jailed is required, but has not yet been filed by the judge.

Stewart Rolfes, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake—a group that advises low-income individuals—disagrees with Rifleman. He says indigent people are only entitled to an appointed attorney in criminal cases where they may face jail time, not civil cases like divorce or parentage—even if jail time could result. Rolfes is not familiar with the particulars of Eastin’s case and said he’s sympathetic to individuals who are not represented by an attorney. However, he said requesting a modification to child support is not difficult.

“For people who don’t have access to an attorney or can’t afford one, at least the very straightforward forms are available [on the court’s Website] and there are [free legal] clinics throughout the state that help people fill those out,” Rolfes said.

From jail, Eastin laughs sardonically at Rolfe’s suggestion. He’s never filled out a form to modify his child support, but says he wasn’t aware of how to do it. “It would be great if you just filled it out and mailed it in, but that doesn’t happen.”

Mary Jane Ciccarello is the director of the Self-Help Center of the Utah State Courts, which is only two years old. The help line she manages is not yet available across the state—and not in the 3rd District, which includes Tooele, Salt Lake and Summit counties. She said the forms were added to the Website last year. “Some people see all the forms ... and they panic,” she says. “When you’re dealing with issues like your children, your home and your income, those are not easy issues, but I think there are resources available and they’re always growing to help people … help themselves.”

That’s not good enough for everyone. Darcy Goddard of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah disagrees with Rolfes that people facing jail time are not entitled to an attorney if they’re in court for a civil matter. Goddard says the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals—the federal appeals court that governs Utah—has addressed directly the issue of jail time for unpaid child support. In a 1985 ruling, that court ruled that due process requires that an “indigent defendant threatened with incarceration for civil contempt for nonsupport” is entitled to a court-appointed attorney. “Our decision is consistent with that of every federal appellate court that has considered this question,” the court wrote.

But beyond the issue of rights, Goddard also says that jailing Eastin is a poor use of taxpayer money. “Mr. Eastin was apparently already thousands of dollars behind on his child support, and he can likely do nothing to earn the money necessary to pay off that debt and provide for his children while he is in jail,” Goddard wrote in an e-mail. “The jail in question ... is so seriously overcrowded that the sheriff [Frank Park] has publicly commented, ‘We are violating civil rights [due to the overcrowding], there’s no doubt about that.' Under those circumstances, it seems particularly troubling for the court to have deprived Mr. Eastin of his right to consult with an attorney about his case once a jail sentence became a real possibility.”

Jesse Fruhwirth: