Prisons of Debt: The Afterlives of Incarcerated Fathers
Lynne Haney
University of California Press, $29.95 (paper)

Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World
Dorothy Roberts
Basic Books, $32 (cloth)

“It is long past time for us to recognize that parental failure to support children is nothing less than economic child abuse,” Wayne Doss, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Family Support Operations, implored Congress in 1992. As head of the nation’s largest local child support enforcement agency, Doss applauded the federal government’s efforts over the preceding two decades to help states track down, punish, and collect from the majority of noncustodial parents who paid no child support. Still, far more could be done, Doss argued, to prevent the “lives disrupted, dreams deferred, and futures denied” by parents who skated on their obligations.

The boundaries between the welfare state and the criminal justice system have become ever blurrier.

Doss was far from alone in linking unpaid child support to anxieties about child abuse—anxieties that fueled what historian Paul Renfro calls the “child safety regime” of late-twentieth-century America. Others went further than Doss, characterizing parents’ “economic abandonment” as the original sin of juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancies, reproducing a cycle of deviancy across generations. Prior to signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, Bill Clinton decried how parental nonsupport was “robbing our children of their future.” “That’s the biggest robbery of all,” he declared, before speaking directly to the nation’s “deadbeat parents.”

You have to behave responsibly. And if you owe child support, you better pay it. If you deliberately refuse to pay it, you can find your face posted in the Post Office. We’ll track you down with computers. We’ll track you down with law enforcement. We’ll find you through the Internet. Not because anybody has a particular interest in humiliating someone, but because we have got to find a way if we want to go into the 21st century as a great nation to succeed at work and at home. And it has to begin with parents doing their part. The government can never substitute for that.

PRWORA is mostly remembered today for its sweeping cuts to welfare, but the bulk of its provisions dealt with child support policy, seeking to make the country’s enforcement system more automatic, centralized, and punitive. For the law’s supporters on both sides of the aisle, these two agendas were complementary: welfare “dependency” was the result of paternal abandonment, they argued, and irresponsible parents could and should pay what welfare no longer would. The law also reflected a long-mounting consensus that when single-parent families did receive welfare, the nonresident parent should reimburse taxpayers for the cost, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

This new emphasis on making “deadbeat” parents pay had dramatic consequences in the following decades. Between 1987 and 2017 the total amount of child support debt owed in the United States increased tenfold—from about $10 billion to $117 billion—and almost half of this debt is owed to the state rather than to custodial parents. Nearly 70 percent of it is owed by men with annual incomes under $10,000, many of whom have no income at all because they are incarcerated, and half of men under correctional supervision have child support cases. (While some mothers do face child support orders, the system mostly impacts fathers.)

The specter of parental neglect no longer orders U.S. politics as it did in the late twentieth century. But as indispensable recent books by sociologists Lynne Haney and Dorothy Roberts demonstrate, the knotty legal infrastructures and punitive policies inspired by this rhetoric have endured, with devastating consequences for poor families. These books focus on different areas of U.S. family policy—Haney writes about child support enforcement, Roberts about child protective services—but together they expose the state’s massive and creeping apparatus for surveilling and disciplining parents.

Through extensive interviews and firsthand observation of family courts, both authors show how parents are subjected to an array of humiliating burdens at the ever-blurrier boundaries between the welfare state and the criminal justice system. Both track how the rise of this system went hand in hand with the neoliberal decimation of the welfare state, privatizing responsibility for structural inequality. And both cast serious doubts on the conceit that this decades-long crackdown has been an unqualified success for children. Along the way, they help to reveal a central problem of contemporary left politics: how to oppose today’s regime of family punishment without reinforcing the family exceptionalism so central to the neoliberal order.

In 2015 a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, murdered Walter Scott while he was fleeing from a traffic stop. In the national outcry that followed, members of Scott’s family suggested that he ran because he feared the stop would turn up a child support debt for which he had already been arrested on multiple occasions. The potential consequences were serious: if referred to family court, Scott would have likely faced a year-long jail sentence. One study found that at the time of Scott’s death, one in eight people in South Carolina county jails were locked up for child support nonpayment.

Like Scott, the currently and formerly incarcerated men who populate Haney’s Prisons of Debt fear the consequences of unpaid child support. Besides arrest and imprisonment, fathers who fail to make court-ordered payments risk losing driver’s and occupational licenses or having their wages and income tax returns garnished. Drawing on years of research in the New York, Florida, and California family court and prison systems, Haney weaves these men’s stories into a disturbing portrait of the U.S. child support enforcement regime as a modern form of debtors’ prison. The result is by far the most comprehensive and illuminating account of the interplay between child support enforcement and incarceration in the contemporary United States.

Child support collections have steadily risen, while welfare spending has plummeted.

Child support legislation has a long history in the United States. As historians such as Michael Willrich have shown, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anxieties about family breakdown—amid urbanization, mass immigration, and the shift toward wage labor—prompted a bevy of local and state laws criminalizing men’s desertion, along with the creation of new family courts that handled child support cases through a mix of judicial proceedings and social work. But enforcement proved difficult, and rates of collection remained low. For much of the twentieth century, state officials, social reformers, and mothers alike bemoaned the ease with which men could evade mounting debt simply by decamping to another jurisdiction.

Prisons of Debt picks up the story during the economic downturn of the early 1970s, when arguments for expanded child support enforcement gained broad political support amid the resurgent, anti–Great Society assertions of “taxpayers’ rights.” Under the presidency of Gerald Ford—who, as a congressman, sponsored the first proposed federal “runaway pappy” bill to criminalize parental nonsupport in 1949—these ideas began to work their way into national law. The 1974 Social Services Amendments created a new federal agency, the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), and funded a computerized Federal Parent Locator Service that collated data across state agencies. The law also required mothers applying for or receiving welfare to cooperate in paternity establishment and provided fiscal incentives for states to ramp up collection of child support payments owed to welfare families. A decade later, during the Reagan administration, Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments, which mandated that states use automatic wage withholding, property liens, and income tax refund interceptions to recoup child support debts. Through these and other laws—culminating in PRWORA—the federal government rapidly systematized, coordinated, and strengthened a patchwork of local and state child support statutes.

In her overview of these developments, Haney emphasizes the accumulating effects of “seemingly small, uncontentious reforms” such as the 1986 Bradley Amendment, which limited the capacity of local judges to modify child support orders and required states to define orders as judgments of law, meaning that violators could be pursued with the government’s new enforcement mechanisms—including across state lines. “These policy shifts turned public assistance into private debt in ways that disproportionally affected disadvantaged parents,” Haney writes. By the 1990s, it was “no coincidence that this shift in the logic of assistance was accompanied by a more punitive approach to its collection.”

PRWORA, in particular, facilitated closer collaboration between law enforcement and child support enforcement. In certain contexts, tough-on-crime and tough-on-deadbeats initiatives became nearly indistinguishable. State attorneys general expanded the use of incarceration as a punishment for nonpayment. Enforcement agencies released FBI-style “Most Wanted” posters of “deadbeat” parents. Some states allowed police to turn over seized drug money and civil forfeiture assets to child support agencies. Seeing an opportunity in the exploding prison population, child support agencies also collaborated with the criminal justice system to match inmates with child support orders and to seize money in their commissary accounts. Today’s child support enforcement system, Haney shows, is the accumulated product of such punitive policies.

Whether these measures have “worked” depends, of course, on what ends we measure them against. Child support collections have steadily risen since the turn of the millennium, while welfare spending through programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—created by PRWORA—has plummeted. In 2021 state child support enforcement systems distributed nearly $30 billion to families, at an administrative cost of about $6 billion. One in five children in the United States are now covered by the child support program, which, the OCSE has often pointed out, plays a significant role in keeping them out of poverty. (According to a 2015 study, 790,000 children would have fallen below the federal poverty line had they not received child support.) Meanwhile, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently noted, “States spent $7.1 billion, just 22 percent, of their federal and state TANF funds on basic assistance—the spending category that includes monthly cash assistance to families—in 2020, down from $14 billion (71 percent) in 1997.”

This fiscal rebalancing has had serious social consequences, Haney argues. The system’s expanded reach and efficiency have come at the cost of pushing impoverished fathers to the margins of society. As Haney puts it, many of these men find themselves entangled between the “debt of imprisonment” and the “imprisonment of debt.” They accrue massive amounts of interest on child support orders when they cannot pay, often because of unemployment or incarceration. They encounter serious obstacles to finding work because of their debt. And they are regularly tracked down and re-imprisoned for nonpayment, restarting this vicious cycle. Both fathers who attempt to meet the system’s demands and fathers who evade them often end up taking similar risks that expose them to further punishment, especially for those on parole or probation: working illegally, for example, or driving on revoked licenses in order to get to court or their jobs.

In the late twentieth century, tough-on-crime and tough-on-deadbeats policies became nearly indistinguishable.

The system also reinforces enduring stereotypes about the irresponsibility of “deadbeat dads,” especially among the largely unsympathetic family court judges who decide whether delinquent fathers should be imprisoned. In tracing the experiences of fathers as they navigate the overlapping (and sometimes competing) demands of the child support and criminal justice systems, Haney adds ethnographic heft to a growing body of work on the expansive reach of the modern “carceral state,” deepening our understanding of the ways it extends far beyond the physical confines of courts, jails, and prisons. Like her former student Issa Kohler-Hausmann’s work on the misdemeanor court system, Haney’s book unearths a vast assemblage of everyday surveillance, procedural hassles, and punitive control that often gets overlooked in popular accounts of mass incarceration.

The “prisons of debt” of Haney’s title should thus be taken quite literally. Prison isn’t just a place where people are incarcerated: it’s a form of psychological, social, and normative disciplining. The state plays a key role in “shaping how men conceptualize, judge, and conduct themselves as fathers,” Haney argues; the book is filled with examples of men encountering a family court system that treats their claims to caregiving as efforts to escape more important financial responsibilities. In one case, a Florida family court judge admonishes a father for mentioning his consistent involvement in his children’s lives: “I don’t care how much you do or don’t see them. . . . You need to learn what it means to be a real man. Real men don’t rely on women. . . . Real fathers . . . do right by their kids and provide for them. They get a J-O-B. . . . So stop hiding behind this ‘love’ excuse.”

In this way, Haney concludes, the state is engaged in the forced financialization of fatherhood. Many state welfare programs still require mothers to disclose their sexual histories so that fathers can be pursued for child support, and in the face of imprisonment or a web of other consequences, fathers burdened by insurmountable debt often retreat from their families—denying their children other forms of caregiving. (This dynamic is especially harmful for men recently released from prison, who often depend on a familial support network.) By equating paternal caregiving with the ability to earn and dispense material support, Haney shows, the child support regime has systematically undercut other dimensions of fatherhood—including, for example, some aspects of Obama-era “responsible fatherhood” programs. Many studies have documented the devastating levels of stress and emotional labor inflicted on families and children by mass incarceration. Haney identifies another source of these effects: the way the criminal justice system defines and enforces fatherhood for impoverished men. And given disproportionate rates of poverty and incarceration among men of color, Haney stresses, the implications are particularly severe for non-white families.

Prisons of Debt just scratches the surface of the fraught relationship between child support enforcement and race. Because Haney focuses on the experiences of fathers, she largely sets aside the regime’s racially disparate consequences for mothers, its hostility to and impacts on child-rearing that takes place outside a nuclear family of legally married parents (which is more common in non-white communities), and its interaction with a foster care system overpopulated by children of color. (The anthropologist Carol Stack warned about the second point as early as the 1970s.) As others have pointed out, requiring the disproportionately non-white mothers who receive welfare benefits to cooperate with child support enforcement only reinforces the racist stereotype of “welfare queens” and subordinates mothers’ privacy rights—not to mention efforts to escape domestic violence—to the fiscal interests of the state. One might add that, by requiring the pursuit of support payments from the fathers of the disproportionately non-white children placed in foster care, federal law imposes racially disparate standards of family reunification: the effect is to make it more difficult for these fathers to achieve the economic stability required to gain custody.

Haney helps show how the “carceral state” extends far beyond the physical confines of courts, jails, and prisons.

Those familiar with the usual operation of the state’s coercive arm will not find these racially uneven effects surprising. The pressing question is how to eliminate them. If the child support system is stacked against the poor, it follows that it will have racially disproportionate impacts, since poverty itself is endured at racially disproportionate rates. From this perspective, it might seem that race would have little to add to the story and that our focus should be on dismantling what legal scholar Jacobus tenBroek once termed the “dual system of family law” in the United States—one for the poor, one for the rest. These are the kinds of reforms that Haney proposes in her final chapter: debt relief, ending public assistance payback and interest incurred on child support debt by imprisoned parents, and eliminating driver’s license suspensions and imprisonment for nonsupport. It would take a different sort of argument than the one Haney pursues to reckon with racism as it operates via other mechanisms, not just through poverty.

This is precisely the sort of argument that Roberts makes in Torn Apart, a deeply researched salvo against the racism of the U.S. child welfare system that culminates in a call for its abolition. A sociologist and legal scholar and longtime board member of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, Roberts also tackled this topic over two decades ago in Shattered Bonds (2001), which kick-started a debate about the disproportionate percentage of Black children in foster care. At the time, Black children comprised almost half of children in foster care but less than 20 percent of all children in the United States.

Critics such as legal scholar Elizabeth Bartholet pushed back against Roberts’s claim that this disproportionality reflected widespread discrimination on the part of caseworkers, lawyers, and judges (as well as fellow citizens, who often trigger investigations in the first place by filing a report of child endangerment). Instead, Bartholet argued, it reflected Black children’s disproportionate poverty—itself a consequence of “historic and ongoing racial and economic injustice”—which in turn explained their disproportionate deprivation, maltreatment, and exposure to drugs and violence. In other words, Bartholet objected, Black children were more likely to be removed because they were more likely to meet the standard for removal, not because child welfare workers acted on racial animus or applied different standards to non-white children. Racial equity, she argued, does not require that the racial demographics of the foster care population match those of the general population; it requires applying the same standard to all children while combating the structural injustices that fuel child mistreatment.

Roberts sees the current U.S. child welfare system as the culmination of a long, racist history of “family policing.”

Torn Apart updates and defends many of the earlier book’s claims in response to Bartholet and other critics, but in essence, Roberts argues, the critics missed her point: from the outset, her goal was “ending child removal, not equalizing it.” “It isn’t enough to argue that Black children are in greater need of help,” she writes. “We should be asking why the government addresses their needs in such a violent way. Even if Black children require more services, why is the main ‘service’ being provided the forced breakup of their families?”

This “service” is provided at astounding rates, and still along profoundly racialized lines. In 2018 U.S. child protective services agencies launched investigations involving 3.5 million children—around 5 percent of all children in the United States. More than half of Black children, and more than 30 percent of all children, are the subject of such an investigation before turning eighteen, and one out of every ten Black children is placed in foster care. Around 14 percent of children in the United States are Black, but they account for 23 percent of the country’s foster care population.

Roberts argues that this state of affairs is the culmination of a long, racist history of “family policing.” Rather than reflecting a real commitment to “child welfare,” she writes, our current system “terrorizes Black families because that’s what it is designed to do. . . . Family policing, though taking various historical forms, has always served to subjugate the most politically marginalized groups and to maintain an unjust political structure in the name of saving children.” Roberts sees a clear thread of child removal stretching from slave auctions, through the state-sanctioned placement of Black children into “apprenticeships” and indigenous children into boarding schools during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and on up to the present child welfare system. In her 2020 book Taking Children, historian Laura Briggs traces a similar genealogy of the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border. Both books conclude that the state learned from its racist tactics, slowly honing its capacity, as Roberts puts it, to “terrorize, control, and disintegrate racialized populations” by taking their children and demanding submission.

Historians might question whether this racist tradition can fully explain the origins and growth of the U.S. child welfare system. As Roberts herself notes, during the first half of the twentieth century, state child welfare services “virtually ignored Black families,” deferring them to the criminal justice system; it was not until the mid-century backlash to the civil rights movement that many of these agencies began to pursue aggressive regulation and separation of Black children from their parents. Scholars of comparative politics, in turn, might ask how Roberts’s U.S.-centric account of “family policing” squares with Jacques Donzelot’s argument that the “policing of families” was central to the birth of the European social welfare state. How does our perception of the sources of U.S. family policing change if “government through the family,” as Donzelot puts it, was and remains a raison d’etre of modern governance in the West?

White politicians often scapegoat Black families as the source of social pathology—the cause of the country’s problems rather than the victims of its many injustices.

These objections point to potential refinements of Roberts’s historical argument, but they do not dislodge its broader upshot: that the U.S. government has repeatedly exercised disturbing forms of power and control over the intimate relationships of racialized groups. Indeed, during periods of sociopolitical crisis, white American politicians often scapegoat Black families as the principal sources of social pathology—the cause of the country’s problems rather than the victims of its many injustices. Roberts makes this point crystal clear in her discussion of the one-two punch of PRWORA and the Adoption and Safe Families Act—which established stronger presumptions and swifter timetables for the termination of parental rights in child welfare cases—in the late 1990s. “The coincidence of the welfare and adoption laws marked the first time in U.S. history that the federal government mandated that states protect children from parental neglect but failed to guarantee a minimum economic safety net for impoverished families,” she writes. Indeed, it was not so much a coincidence as a deliberate strategy to make poverty out to be a matter of individual choices rather than structural and intergenerational inequality.

Roberts’s concept of family policing is particularly useful for exposing the entanglements between law enforcement and welfare policy in the administrative state. The distinguishing feature of our current regime of family policing, Torn Apart makes clear, is not so much a new set of laws as a new infrastructure that automates and expands enforcement. Starting in the 1960s, mandated reporter provisions imposed criminal penalties on certain professionals who work with children for failing to notify state officials of suspected child neglect or abuse; since then, these provisions have been extended to everyday people, and their proliferation has intersected with the rise of inter-agency databases spanning the criminal justice, medical, education, and welfare systems. As a result, more parents have found themselves drawn into child protective services proceedings at precisely the moment when other realms of the state have been empowered to take notice.

The cumulative effect has been to ensnare families in a brutally efficient web of state-administered punishment. In the past, one hand of the state might not know what the other was doing; now it can supply information that could be used to deny welfare and housing benefits, as well as justify expanded surveillance. Parents seeking to retrieve their children from the foster care system are often subjected to byzantine “service plans” that carefully track whether they attend parent training and anger management classes, pass psychological evaluations, submit to regular drug testing and unannounced home inspections, maintain a full-time job and stable housing, and have frequent contact with their assigned caseworkers and counselors. While the fathers in Haney’s narrative risk losing driver’s licenses, the mothers in Roberts’s story who face neglect charges are often denied occupational licenses needed to access gendered labor markets—child care work, nursing, cosmetology—making it all the more difficult to prove themselves worthy to the state.

Family policing has become brutally efficient thanks to new infrastructure that links different arms of the state.

The parents caught up in this increasingly efficient punitive system are disproportionately Black, Roberts emphasizes, in part due to the “spillover” of racist policing and medical evaluation into the child welfare system. People in predominantly non-white neighborhoods are far more likely to have their parenting surveilled and reported than people in predominantly white neighborhoods. Medical professionals are more likely to report suspected abuse when treating injured Black children. And Black parents’ overrepresentation in the incarcerated population also means that their children are more likely to be placed in the foster care system, often permanently. In mapping these cascading consequences, Torn Apart shows that “family policing” is no more beneficent than policing in general. In fact, the two institutions overlap to such a degree that it can be hard to tell them apart.

This point is central to Roberts’s abolitionist vision. It would be self-defeating to transfer funds and authority from police to health and human service agencies, she argues, as these arms of the state are fully aligned and integrated. Instead of pursuing “another reformed state system,” Roberts thus calls for “a radically reimagined way of caring for families and keeping children safe.” As she envisions it, this would include the expansion of mutual aid networks and community institutions for child care and counseling, the adoption of community-administered transformative justice practices to deal with intimate violence and abusive parenting, and the reallocation of funds previously earmarked for child welfare to make the child tax credit far more generous and to provide reparations for forcibly separated families. In short, Roberts’s positive program sees very little role for the state in family policy outside of cash support for parents.

Read together, these books paint a devastating portrait of the U.S. state’s current child protection regime, exposing how its nominal goal is undermined by the bureaucratic and punitive institutions that have grown up in its name.

It does not follow that if families are taken care of economically, they will always take care of their own.

On the question of what is to be done, however, both books face the well-worn objection—raised early and often—that child mistreatment is widespread and that it is the state’s responsibility to disincentivize, punish, or otherwise root out harm to children. Though this concern is often weaponized to blame “bad parents” instead of unjust social conditions, some children really are harmed by their families or by the abandonment of their parents—including in circumstances that are not clearly associated with poverty. (That group of children is dramatically overpopulated by LGBTQ+ youth, for example.) Adopting generous Nordic-style family policies in the United States—including child allowances and “child support assurance” systems that would automatically supplement missed payments—would certainly improve many people’s material conditions and mitigate poverty-associated mistreatment of children. But it does not follow that if families are taken care of economically, they will always take care of their own.

Within the contemporary left, responses to this complex reality—to the harms both of family policing and of real child abuse and neglect—have tended to be sorted into two camps, with reformists on one side and abolitionists on the other. Prisons of Debt clearly falls in the former category, Torn Apart the latter. For Haney, the goal of state-administered family justice is worth holding onto, even though it has so far been implemented in ineffective, unfair, and overly punitive ways. (Frances Fox Piven and the late Barbara Ehrenreich made a similar argument about welfare in 1984, urging feminists and progressives to defend the goal of an expansive welfare state even while criticizing the shortcomings and failures of actually existing welfare programs.) For Roberts, by contrast, history shows that “child protection” is just a cynical cover for race- and class-based subjugation, and the state shouldn’t be in this business at all.

Each of these visions has its preferred mechanism for facilitating collective responsibility for children’s well-being: the former in the institutions of the state, the latter in the institutions of the community. But as political campaigns against the status quo, both of these visions are up against the prevailing neoliberal conception of families, which sees the nuclear, heteronormative unit as the basis of both economic and moral security. Even Roberts slips into describing the family as a “critical social institution that serves as a caring shield around its members to protect them from the totalitarian dictates of government officials.” On today’s political terrain, defenses of the family are not always about protecting, as Haney puts it, “those bonds most essential for social well-being: relationships of care, reciprocity, and interdependence.” They tend to be arguments that stable, nuclear families must be both incentivized and left alone, protected from outside intrusion or influence (whether from the state or the wider community). This conceit—the family as altruistic mini-economy and “caring” fiefdom—keeps us from thinking more expansively about our collective responsibilities to families and, more importantly, to the people who comprise them.

Opposition to family policing must be tied to a critique of the nuclear family.

Part of the problem is the family’s special status in the U.S. legal system. As legal scholars Janet Halley and Kerry Rittich have argued, family law developed independently of much other law governing public life, often on the back of “claims that family law (or marriage, or ‘the family’) should be different because of the unique, special, crucial, affective, altruistic, social-ordering, and/or sacred nature of the relationships that it houses.” When the family wage system crumbled in the late twentieth century, both neoliberals and neocons ran with this “family law exceptionalism” in order to justify cuts to the social safety net. Along the way, this effort to construct a “comprehensive alternative to the welfare state,” as political theorist Melinda Cooper puts it, has enshrined the nuclear family as the only workable guarantor of children’s interests. Half a century of punitive neoliberalism—what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the “antistate state”—has vitiated popular belief in a direct role for the state in promoting children’s well-being, one that goes beyond deferring to or dictating the actions of parents.

Squaring collective responsibility for child welfare with opposition to today’s family policing regime is not impossible, but it demands a critical approach to the nuclear family. Feminist calls for family abolition, both past and present, offer one direction for this work; at a minimum it requires confronting the family’s ideological and material role in the reproduction of inequality and a gendered division of labor, the maintenance of patriarchal and heterosexual norms, the perpetuation of privatized conceptions of care, and yes, a significant amount of violence and abuse. We need a vision of the welfare state that aims at more than the distribution of economic support for the inviolable prerogatives of parents, and we also need an anti-carceral politics that acknowledges some families will break apart or lose sight of children’s well-being. Exactly what role state and community should play when these circumstances arise is a matter for collective deliberation; Haney and Roberts give us the ground on which this conversation must take place.

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