Unable to pay child support, poor parents jailed – US news – Crime & courts | NBC News
It may not be a crime to be poor, but it can land you behind bars if you also are behind on your child-support payments.
Thousands of so-called “deadbeat” parents are jailed each year in the U.S. after failing to pay court-ordered child support — the vast majority of them for withholding or hiding money out of spite or a feeling that they’ve been unfairly gouged by the courts.
But in what might seem like an un-American plot twist from a Charles Dickens’ novel, advocates for the poor say, some parents are wrongly being locked away without any regard for their ability to pay — sometimes without the benefit of legal representation.
Randy Miller, a 39-year-old Iraqi war vet, found himself in that situation in November, when a judge in Floyd County, Ga., sent him to jail for violating a court order to pay child support.
He said he was stunned when the judge rebuffed his argument that he had made regular payments for more than a decade before losing his job in July 2009 and had recently resumed working.
“I felt that with my payment history and that I had just started working, maybe I would be able to convince the judge to give me another month and a half to start making the payments again,” he told msnbc.com. “… But that didn’t sit too well with him because he went ahead and decided to lock me up.”
Miller, who spent three months in jail before being released, is one of six plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in March that seeks to force the state of Georgia to provide lawyers for poor non-custodial parents facing the loss of their freedom for failing to pay child support.
“Languishing in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes over a year, these parents share one trait … besides their poverty: They went to jail without ever talking to an attorney,” according to the lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Southern Center of Human Rights in Atlanta.
While jailing non-paying parents — the vast majority of them men — does lead to payment in many cases, critics say that it unfairly penalizes poor and unemployed parents who have no ability to pay, even though federal law stipulates that they must have “willfully” violated a court order before being incarcerated.
They compare the plight of such parents to the poor people consigned to infamous “debtors’ prisons” before such institutions were outlawed in the early 1800s.
“I try very carefully not to exaggerate, but I do think that’s an apt comparison,” said Sarah Geraghty, the attorney handling the Georgia case for the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“And I think anyone who went down and watched one of these proceedings would agree with me. … You see a room full of indigent parents — most of them African-American — and you have a judge and attorney general, both of whom are white. The hearings often take only 15 seconds. The judge asks, ‘Do you have any money to pay?’ the person pleads and the judge says, ‘OK you’re going to jail,’” she added.
The threat of jailing delinquent parents is intended to coerce them to pay, but in rare cases it can have tragic results.
In June, a New Hampshire father and military veteran, Thomas Ball, died after dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself ablaze in front of the Cheshire County Court House.
In a long, rambling letter to the local Sentinel newspaper, the 58-year-old Ball stated that he did so to focus attention on what he considered unfair domestic violence laws and because he expected to be jailed at an upcoming hearing on his failure to pay up to $3,000 in delinquent child support, even though he had been out of work for two years.
The ability of judges to jail parents without a trial is possible because failure to pay child support is usually handled as a civil matter, meaning that the non-custodial parent — or the “contemnor” in legal terms — is found guilty of contempt of court and ordered to appear at a hearing.
He or she is not entitled to some constitutional protections that criminal defendants receive, including the presumption of innocence. And in five states — Florida, Georgia, Maine, South Carolina and Ohio — one of the omitted protections is the right to an attorney.
Randall Kessler, a family law attorney in Atlanta and chairman of the American Bar Association’s family law division, said states have a great deal of leeway in family law, which includes child support cases.
“The main reason states are patchwork is because family law is a local idea,” he said. “It’s very infrequent that the federal government gets into family law, except for international custody every now and then and violence against women. … Each community’s laws are different in the way they treat child support collection, and the right to a lawyer and the right to a jury trial varies.”
He noted, however, that the ABA last year approved a resolution urging “federal, state, and territorial governments to provide legal counsel as a matter of right at public expense to low-income persons in … adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody.”
Supreme Court: No right to a lawyer
The child support program currently serves approximately 17 million U.S. children, or nearly a quarter of the nation’s minors, according to a recent study by Elaine Sorensen, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
Critics of incarceration without representation had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would end the practice in its ruling in Turner v. Rogers, a case involving a South Carolina man who was repeatedly jailed for up to a year after failing to pay child support.
But the court ruled 5-4 in June that poor parents are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer when facing jail for non-payment of child support. Instead, the justices said, states should use “substantial procedural safeguards” to ensure that those who have no means to pay are not locked up.
That is likely to force the states that don’t guarantee the right to an attorney to tighten their policies, said Colleen Eubanks, executive director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, which represents state agencies. “Obviously they’re going to have to look at changing the rules,” she said.
Ken Wolfe, a spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which imposes some rules on state child support enforcement agencies in exchange for funding, said the agency expects to issue guidance to the states next month regarding the Turner case. He declined to provide any details.
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