In Tennessee, a parent can be placed in jail for violating a child support order if the parent has the ability to pay. Courts have civil contempt powers that can be used to enforce their orders. The parent who is owed money may file a petition for contempt against the parent that owes the child support. If the court finds that there is an order for child support and the parent has not paid, the burden is then on the parent to show why they should not be held in contempt. If they are found in contempt, the court may then place them in jail. Since the contempt is civil in nature, the parent holds the keys to the jail-house doors. The parent can be released whenever they decide to comply with the courts order and pay the support.
In addition to civil contempt, a parent could also face incarceration under criminal contempt charges or Federal criminal sanctions under the Child Support Recovery Act.