By: Lynnel H. Bott, Your Black World
Impoverished and can’t meet your child support obligations? Tough luck, you’re going to jail.
Just like the notorious days of the 19th Century debtor prisons, thousands of parents across the country who fail to pay court-ordered support for their children are facing jail time --- most for purposely or spitefully withholding or hiding cash.
Unfortunately, according to advocates for the poor, other parents are being jailed wrongfully with no consideration for their actual ability to pay, and often these truly poor parents have no lawyer to represent them.
In Floyd County, Georgia, a 39-year-old war vet found himself incapable of paying support last November and was sent to jail for violating a court order. The judge completely disregarded his history of making regular payments for over a decade before he lost his job in July 2009. He had only recently begun working again.
The Floyd County vet spent three months in jail before his release. He is one of six plaintiffs who filed a class-action lawsuit in March seeking to force the state of Georgia to provide attorneys for impoverished, non-custodial parents facing imprisonment for failing to make child support payments.
The nonprofit Southern Center of Human Rights, located in Atlanta, filed the lawsuit; they argue that besides poverty, these parents went to jail without ever speaking to a lawyer.
Critics admit that while the jailing of parents who don’t pay can sometimes lead to payment, it also penalizes the poor and unemployed parents who can’t pay even though the law is clear that a parent must be in willful violation of a court order before being jailed.
Judges can jail parents without trial because failure to pay child support is typically a civil matter and civil defendants are not afforded the same constitutional protections as criminal defendants, including the presumption of innocence.
Critics hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court would end the practice after hearing the case of Turner v. Rogers, which concerned a man in South Carolina repeatedly jailed for failure to pay; instead, the court ruled 5-4 in June that poor parents were not entitled to court-appointed representation and suggested that states employ “substantial procedural safeguards” to see to it that indigent parents not be jailed.
Colleen Eubanks, Executive Director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, says that states denying the right to an attorney may actually tighten up their policies. “Obviously they’re going to have to look at changing the rules,” she said.