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Incarceration for Failure to Pay Child Support in Georgia

In this economy, many fathers in Georgia, despite their best efforts to provide for their children, fall short of meeting their court ordered monthly child support obligation. Imagine for a moment that this has happened and Georgia Department of Human Services has filed an action against you, requesting your incarceration until you pay several thousand dollars in past due support.You are confident that the Judge will understand and you appear in Court ready to explain you situation. You tell the Court that you have been unemployed for months but just landed a new job,which will allow you to pay your current and past due support. You simply request time to bring your past due support current. The Judge disregards your predicament and issues an Order immediately incarcerating you. You spend the next several months in jail, without family or friends to help, unable to pay the past due amount. The practical result is that now you are unemployed, again, because the employer had to fire you. Despite putting yourself back in a position to pay child support, the Court has now eliminated that option for you.

In a Georgia contempt action, it is common practice to request the Court to incarcerate the non-paying party for willful and intentional underpayment or nonpayment of court ordered support. The situation I just described happened to five fathers in Georgia, who are now seeking to change the system. In March of 2011, these five fathers, represented by Southern Center for Human Rights,brought suit in the matter of Miller, et al. v. Deal, et al., Fulton County Superior Court Case, Civil Action File No. 2011-CV-198121. The suit challenges a Georgia law allowing Judges to incarcerate unrepresented parents in civil child support proceedings that have been brought against them by Georgia Department of Human Services.

On December 30, 2011, Judge Baxter granted the case class action status but the State has announced that it will be appealing this class action certification to the Supreme Court of Georgia.According to the Law Office for the Southern Center for Human Rights, "[i]n the past two years, Georgia has jailed over 3,500 unrepresented parents for child support debt in proceedings initiated by the State. Many of these parents are held for months - some for over a year - even though they have no money to pay and no way to earn money while in jail." "Georgia Deprives Children as Indigent Parents Languish In Debtors' Jail for Inability to Pay Child Support." Southern Center for Human Rights. Web. 03Feb. 2012.

The case is pending appeal and it will be some time before we know what changes, if any, come about as of the result of this suit. So why does this matter? Is it right that indigent fathers are incarcerated sometimes for months or even longer without having had the benefit of legal counsel? The implications of the required changes to Georgia's legal system if this suit is successful,are potentially far reaching. Georgia, like many states, is strapped for cash and given the sheer volume of these cases, the State will be forced to come up with the funding to provide counsel for these indigent parents.

By Alyssa Vaughn, Associate, Meriwether & Tharp, LLC


Child Support
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