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Fathers challenge jail sentences for child support

ATLANTA — After Lance Hendrix returned from military service in 2009, he landed part-time construction work and odd jobs to help pay the child support he owed for his daughter. He managed to pay about $3,800, but when he couldn't afford to the rest, a judge threw Hendrix in jail for four months.

The 24-year-old is one of five fathers behind a legal challenge targeting a law that allows judges to put parents in jail if they can't make child support payments. The dads say it perpetuates a disastrous cycle, as the parents wind up losing their jobs, making it harder for them to pay up. The lawsuit aims to force Georgia to provide the parents attorneys at hearings so they can better defend themselves.

"They're putting people in jail that have no means of even supporting themselves," Hendrix said. "Who's going to want to hire me from jail? 'Hello, my name is Lance Hendrix and I'm currently an inmate in Cook County Jail. Would you mind hiring me?' Yeah right."

Imprisoning parents over child support payments has become routine in Georgia. At least 3,500 parents have been jailed in child support cases without being provided attorneys since January 2010, according to court records. In October 2011, 845 parents were jailed in Georgia for child support proceedings.

"We absolutely have a modern day debtor's prison," said Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Atlanta-based organization representing the fathers. "They are forgotten about. And in many instances, the parent is sent to jail and they're called back into court only when someone remembers that they're there."

The Georgia attorney general's office and the state's Department of Human Services declined comment on the litigation. In court filings, state attorneys said the lawsuit was unnecessary because parents could avoid incarceration by appealing the contempt orders that send them to jail. State attorneys also said locking parents up is a last resort to hold parents accountable.

If the lawsuit prevails, it could bring big changes to Georgia's legal system, forcing the state to set aside potentially millions of dollars to pay for lawyers for the parents. Geraghty said she also hopes it could bring a shift in tactics, prodding the state to garnish the wages of delinquent parents or put liens on their property rather than incarcerate them.

"The problem that we see in Georgia is the state often uses incarceration as a first resort rather than a last resort," she said.

The five fathers cleared a major hurdle recently when a judge granted class-action status, allowing thousands of other indigent parents who were imprisoned to join the lawsuit. The December order, by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, only applies to those who can't afford to pay for an attorney, not those who can hire one but choose not to do so.

The sentences given to the parents -- some have spent more than a year in jail -- are a result in a quirk in Georgia law. Anyone charged with criminal contempt has the right to an attorney and can only be imprisoned for 20 days. But child support hearings are civil matters, and parents charged with contempt in those cases are often jailed for far longer, without counsel.

Georgia is one of four states that don't require indigent plaintiffs facing jail in child support cases to be appointed attorneys. The state, meanwhile, often has experienced lawyers.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in June holding that indigent parents don't have the right to counsel in a child support hearing where the state wasn't involved . But this lawsuit says there are thousands of cases in Georgia untouched by the ruling because the state represents the other side.

The plaintiffs and the other parents who could join the class-action lawsuit are a diverse group that includes military veterans, immigrants, the homeless and even a pregnant woman.

One is 40-year-old Randy Miller, a veteran of the Iraq war who has paid about $75,000 in child support for his two daughters over the years. He lost his job at AT&T and then lost his home in 2010, and at one point had as little as 39 cents in his bank account.

He was jailed for three months when he was unable to pay his $800 obligation. He was released in February 2011, but still owes money and fears he could be jailed again.

Hendrix is now working odd jobs, helping renovate restaurants and build furniture. He's taken to buying canned foods from discount stores rather than fast food. He relies on help from family to pay some bills.

But it's still not enough to pay the $480 he owes his ex-wife each month for their 5-year-old daughter, so he risks being incarcerated again.

"It's an impossible situation," he said. "And I can't find a job when I'm in jail."

Comments

waltspecht 2 years, 2 months ago

This occurrs after how many attempts by DFCS to work out some type of payment schedule? I know there aren't that many jobs out there, but I do know there are jobs. Perhaps there isn't enough money to have Beer and a Truck plus pay Child Support. Perhaps you should have considered the ramifications of your act before you went and enjoyed yourself? Without this ability, how would you propose pressure be put on these Dad's? Obviously Official Decree and Orders don't affect them. Now I know there are some that do try, but there are others that just don't. I have been approached more than once by individuals that wanted to be paid under the table to avoid child support, so I know there are some out there. Plus what about those people (Grand Parents) that are paying to support the Child while the Dad isn't? No, it isn't usually the Dad's parents either.

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gradin78 2 years, 2 months ago

Every case is different but the not according to the laws. What is sad to me is that there isn't an attorney out there willing to take on this unfair system involving child support and how it's ruined lives. It's suppose to be "in the best interest of the children" when it really isn't. I am living this nightmare with my husband. Don't pile everyone into the same basket.

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VSU 2 years, 2 months ago

These fathers never have enough money for child support, but always seem to have enough to pay for beer, cigarettes and a hooker.

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Duane_Kelley 2 years, 2 months ago

Each situation is different....You cant assume that ALL fathers behind bars are like that....that would be like assuming ALL white people are racist or ALL police officers are crooked cops...Fathers need to pay child support I agree, and those who do not pay is locking them up actually a solution? Now they and the child become the state's responsibility...which means we taxpayers foot the bill.....Instead of an Amen corner why not work together for viable solutions to a serious problem

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Outtahere 2 years, 2 months ago

Oh Please!! We can amen if we want to! And yes - all situations are different but there is this thing called MAJORITY!! A MAJORITY of these men are dodging payments!!! The answer is not to lock them up but to keep more tabs on their income! I DO NOT feel sorry for ANY ONE of these men!! WE ARE ALL struggling to make ends meet and they are no different!! Go cry me a river!!!

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Duane_Kelley 2 years, 2 months ago

You shouldnt feel sorry for them.....my point is while they are in jail people like you and I are paying for them and the child they are not supporting in many cases....is that a solution? Incarceration is not solving anything emphasis on Solution...not feeling sorry...and even if a majority are dodging payments is locking them up really doing anything but putting a burden on taxpayers? The problem is there is a child going without something that he or she desperaty needs love and support from both parents....Is incarceration the answer? I don't think so...I'm not a researcher so I cant speak on whether or not a majority of men are dodging,but i respectfully disagree with you on that point

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albanyherald1 2 years, 2 months ago

As for the first two comments, I don't think we should lump everyone in the same basket. This may be true for some, maybe even a majority, but not for all.

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gradin78 2 years, 2 months ago

I totally agree and yet the system seems to have the same mentality. My earlier comment has yet to be posted.

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waltspecht 2 years, 2 months ago

I swear I said I knew there were some that did try to make the payments, so wouldn't that exclude my post from your comment? The whole rant was directed at those that don't pay, and do everything they can to avoid paying. That includes selling winning lottery tickets to others at a discount because if they cashed one in the money would be seized and used to pay back child support. Oh yes, that does happen quite often.

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justme 2 years, 2 months ago

The big crime here is that in this State people who need legal representation for non support are not getting it.

The children involved are being cared for as someone is collecting from the state to do so.

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waltspecht 2 years, 2 months ago

No, not in all cases. I know many Grand Parents that are picking up the tab because the Daughter works but doesn't earn a whole lot, but enough to be denied State Benefits.

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justme 2 years, 2 months ago

I was not refering to those who really try as I am one of those Grand Parents.

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rock 2 years, 2 months ago

The real sad part of this, is SOME of these men do not know they have a child until some one from state office shows up demanding money. There are women who will get pregnant, not tell the father for what ever reason, then when the child real starts to gt expensive, or the current boyfriend does something, the mother screams for child support. I had it happen to a friend of mine, only knew the women for a FEW days and then 11 years later the state of georgia starts working on him for back child support.

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LuLu 2 years, 2 months ago

He only knew her for a FEW days and knocked her up? He and the woman both deserved it then.

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Sunnydee 2 years, 2 months ago

Yeah right I think 3 of my brothers use this accuse

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darnette0101 2 years, 2 months ago

The other thing I have issues with is when the father pays his child support faithfully and yet the mother is allowed to leave town with the child and the dad can't do anything. This is happening to my husband. The only time we hear anything is when his company is late sending a payment. Then she shows up or calls saying she was just giving us an "update" on the child. We asked his caseworker about that and she stated there was nothing we could do as she is the custodial parent. Mind you, she hasn't had a job since the child was born! And then let's other people claim the boy on their taxes because she gets a cut.

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coachjohnson42 2 years, 2 months ago

The problem I have with it is the fact that no one regulates how the child support is spent at the mother's house.Some of these mothers are wasting their child support money because some fathers who do pay child support are still having to cough up money for shoes, clothes, and essential items to survive. What happened to the money that was sent to you? Locking up fathers who don't pay is not the solution either. Charging the non-custodial parent to pay 20% of their gross salary is not the answer either. If you make $100 a week, thats $20......If you make $100,000/year, thats $20,000/year. etc......Its gotten out of hand. I say they should make all non-custodial parents pay a flat rate each month and leave it at that...How much is fair???? Thats still negotiable.....

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Outtahere 2 years, 2 months ago

Coach, I agree with you. Locking them up is not the answer. I got all excited talking about men that dodge payments but there is another side as well - the women that don't spend the money on the children!! Both sides should be monitored to ensure the well being of the child. But... then you're talking more case workers (that are always underpaid) to keep up with these adults (??) not making the right decisions concerning their kids. Anyway... it's a cycle.

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whattheheck 2 years, 2 months ago

Have to agree with you, Coach. The mothers that don't spend support money on child support--not their personal support--are a problem. Just like the mothers who get SNAP and sell the cards for cash. In some cases, the fathers are screwed to the post trying to make unrealistic payments to these "queens". I do believe in supporting the child but not the mother in the style she wants to live--that is alimony.

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Jacob 2 years, 2 months ago

I say sterilize these deadbeat dads who go around impregnating everything that will lay down with them and brag about all their baby mommas out there. Yard dogs have more scruples. Two payments behind- sterilize until arrears are brought up to date.

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coachjohnson42 2 years, 2 months ago

With what job???? working where????

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Jacob 2 years, 2 months ago

Maybe that ought to be a consideration to ponder before the breeding process actually takes place, no?

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agirl_25 2 years, 2 months ago

What about deadbeat mothers? They exist too, you know. They are the ones who have babies and later decide they don't want to be a mama anymore and walk off and leave them in the care of some guy they met and had a couple kids by. I know of a case now where a professional woman has decided she doesn't want to be a mama anymore and has signed over her parental rights to her professional husband and the courts have ordered her to pay child support. She has not paid it in years because of her husband's income, which she feels is sufficient to support the children in the manner in which they were previously able to be supported, with or without her added income. Her ex-husband has taken her to court over this several times and she has been ordered time and time again to pay or be sent to jail but each time by some miracle she never pays or goes to jail. I may add, her father is well connected in judicial circles (hmmmm..I wonder if that matters).......So, remember there are deadbeat mamas too and the courts are not always fair..and it seems to depend on who you are and who you know sometimes.

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coachjohnson42 2 years, 2 months ago

The courts are totally biased against men in child-support cases. They are cruel. Nobody is keeping them in check because "it sounds good to make the man pay up, or go to jail". Its political too....I mean, what candidate is gonna come out and say "child-support laws need to be revised!!" NOBODY....they will lose votes.....So, to me the whole thing is corrupted

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Citizen_A 2 years, 2 months ago

The child support system is extremely flawed. I agree with "coachjohnson42" that it is biased toward the men and needs to be revised. The women can stick it to the fathers in so many ways.

There may be situations where the pay up or go to jail is justified. But the court system needs to look at where the money, that they do pay, goes. You never see any lawmakers making sure the mothers use the child support appropriately.

There needs to be some accounting of the child support that the mothers receive. I have always thought that the money should be divided up. A portion off of the top should go into a savings account for the child untouchable by the mother, and given to the child at an appropriate age to pay for college. The remainder should be divided up for use in the household budget, and direct care for the child. I could almost bet that if the fathers knew where the money they were paying was going, that there would be less deadbeat dads.

I have seen good mothers who use their money right. And I have also seen fathers who struggle, and sacrifice only to see the money they hand over squandered on things that the children never see. It is a shame that the good ones pay for what the bad ones do. But that is what it takes to keep the dishonest ones in check.

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coachjohnson42 2 years, 2 months ago

Wow, You said a mouthful Citizen_A. The child support system of Georgia has been biased against men for years without any revision thats worth speaking of. I agree that child support money should be put away in like a mutual fund for the child and made available for him when he turns 18. The mother should only get a portion of the money to go towards household bills and medical care. She should then show receipts to prove how she spent the money. If the mother mis-uses the child-support money, then she should go to jail. How about that???

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gradin78 2 years, 2 months ago

The custodial parent (CP) should also be under the microscope. They are able to use the child support money however they choose while the non custodial parent (NCP) is a slave to the agency. The NCP is constantly monitored. If you have lost your job and can't pay, too bad, the state cares not that you are struggling just to keep a roof over your head and your bills paid. It is time for the CP to be required to show records of how the money is being spent. This is one issue that you never hear on the news. I was totally shocked to see it on the news. This system is outdated and totally unfair!!

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immokaleeman 2 years, 2 months ago

I completely look at this and agree that the child support laws of Georgia are bias and most fathers out there having to pay child support are in one heck of a position to be screwed over by the ex-wife at any time... but also likewise if the role was reversed... the mother would be in trouble in the same way. Society nowadays has "accepted" this for the norm. People have no common sense and look at things from the perspective that it is ALL about the child and not their own personal vendetta that they have against their ex. Many use child support as a weapon towards the other and because of the hurtful feelings, they capitalize on it and basically go after the ex-spouse in retaliation for the divorce. If it ends up putting the ex-spouse in jail.. so be it... and thus the child grows up in a home where the mother states that the dad was a deadbeat dad... when deep inside, the mother trash talked and made it a living hell for the father. Not saying this is always what happens... but it happens more than you realize. There are some dads out there (and mothers) who spend child support money foolishly and the child never sees a dime of it.However, you do have those who receive child support and use it the way it is supposed to. For those who pay child support, remember this... it is for the child... no matter how hard it will get. For those who receive child support, remember this... that is NOT YOUR MONEY.... it is your child's money. So use it wisely for your child and don't steal from your own child so you can spend it foolishly. For those who are going through divorce... don't be stupid enough to ask for child support. Be mature enough to work with your soon to be ex-spouse and work things out for your child. Share responsibility and be mature for your child's sake. Both of you were willing to lay in bed and experience the birth of your child... so be mature enough to work things out for your child and make a positive future for the child. Let them know that no matter what happens between ex-spouses... the child is more important and number 1.

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coachjohnson42 2 years, 2 months ago

Wow, I wonder if the Georgia Law Makers are reading this. This is what they need to know. Child Support System of Georgia is messed up and needs revision. We need to write our congressman and see what can be done to get our message to legislature. It should not be a problem as long as the number one person who is cared for properly is the child. Both parents come second. Mis-use of child support money should be a felony. If a parent cannot pay child-support and must be detained, then assign them some state affiliated duties (that pay) and use all the money earned to pay the arrears for certain amount of time. But, protect that father from losing his job if he is already paying child-support and has gotten behind. Causing him to be fired by detaining him is stupid. Just locking people up to get back at them for not paying is stupid.

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Sunnydee 2 years, 2 months ago

Its sad that folks need the system to tell them how they should support their own children. Why not do what you should be doing anyway before the system steps in. Child Support Enforcement was created for a reason folks! not all parents are responsible this is why they become a number in a system that is well need to save innocent children.

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