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.
But Libba Patterson, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former director of the state Department of Social Services, said the Supreme Court ruling provides “very weak protections” for poor parents and is unlikely on its own to solve the problem of wrongful incarceration of poor parents.
“It depends on the extent to which the court is truly interested in making a full inquiry on the ability-to-pay issue and on the resources the court has and the amount of judicial time,” she said.
Even in states where the non-custodial parents do have the right to a lawyer, those without the financial resources to meet their child-support obligations still frequently land in jail.
A 2009 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C., found that only half of the child support debtors in California prisons had reported income in the two preceding years. And the median net income of the others was a mere $2,881.
65 percent of paycheck taken
Geraghty, the Southern Center for Human Rights attorney, said part of the problem is that courts often order poor parents to pay too much for child support in the first place, increasing the likelihood that they will fall behind on payments.
“One of my former clients worked at the Piggly Wiggly (supermarket) and they were taking 65 percent of her paycheck,” she said. “It left her in a position where there was simply no way that she could survive on the amount that she had left.”
No one can say how many parents are jailed each year for failing to pay child support, because states typically do not track such cases.
But an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics in 2002 by the Urban Institute’s Sorensen found that approximately 10,000 men were in jail for non-payment of child support, representing 1.7 percent of the overall U.S. jail population.
Most observers believe that number has risen as a result of the troubled U.S. economy.
In fiscal 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Child Support Enforcement program saw child support collections decline for the first time in the history of the program, dipping 1.8 percent, the GAO reported in January.
At the same time, payments collected from unemployment insurance benefits nearly tripled, and the number of cases in which children were receiving public assistance also rose.
Military veterans, who often struggle to find work when they leave the service, appear to be particularly at risk.
Lance Hendrix of Adel, Ga., an Army veteran, said he fell behind on child support for his 4-year-old daughter after he left the service and couldn’t find work.
“I was arrested and I went to jail and they asked me all sorts of questions,” said Hendrix, who also is a plaintiff in the Georgia lawsuit. “I was never told I was under arrest. And I was never read my rights. So I did not know what rights I had. Of course, I’ve seen all these movies, but half that isn’t true.”
Not having a lawyer in a civil contempt hearing increases the likelihood that the parent will be jailed, even if he or she is not guilty of “willfully” defying the court’s order, say critics of the policy.
“In the absence of counsel … it appears that the opportunity to raise the defense is often missed, and large numbers of indigent parents are wrongfully imprisoned for failure to meet child support obligations every year,” according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Turner case by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.
The deck is further stacked against the delinquent parent because the state often acts as the plaintiff, seeking to recover the cost of providing public assistance to the child, Geraghty said.
Officials of Georgia’s Child Support Services agency declined to comment on the state’s child support enforcement policies or the lawsuit.
But Seth Harp, a retired Georgia state senator and former member of the state’s Child Support Guidelines Commission, said the state’s judges use incarceration sparingly.
“The methodology to put someone in jail requires that the person be taken to court before a judge and there they have to be found in willful contempt — someone who actively refuses to seek work or is hiding assets, something like that,” he said. “Judges don’t want to put people in jail. … The whole purpose is to get these people to support their children.”
Harp said he’s seen the tactic work repeatedly in his long career as a family law attorney.
“You can’t get blood out of a turnip, but you can put the turnip in the cooler,” he said. “And in 34 years of doing this, it’s amazing, you put someone in the cooler and the money seems to come.”
Judge Janice M. Rosa, a supervising court judge in New York’s 8th Judicial District and a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said the system in her state adequately protects non-custodial parents by guaranteeing them a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one and carefully determining that they have the ability to pay.
“No one here is going to jail when a factory closes down and you’re one of hundreds looking for a job,” she said. “… Every state has said that debtors’ prisons are illegal, and you have to give these people a way out. You can only put them in jail if they have money and won’t pay.”
Attempt to assist both parents
Eubanks, the National Child Support Enforcement Association official, said state programs in general are doing a better job in recent years of ensuring that the poor aren’t unfairly locked up by instituting programs to help non-custodial parents improve work, life and parenting skills.
“Five to 10 years ago, the program was pretty much about enforcing support. But now it’s moving to the understanding that if parents are going to support their children, they need assistance,” she said. “Our philosophy is to provide whatever tools we can to both parents to support their children.”
She also said the recent Supreme Court decision prompted the association to conduct training and outreach to ensure that state agencies are aware of the issue and have adequate safeguards in place to prevent indigent parents from being wrongly jailed.
That is no comfort to Miller, the Iraq war veteran who was jailed for three months. He said jailing parents who fall behind on their payments is counterproductive and should be reserved for only the most egregious violators.
“I feel like it’s more unfair to the kids, because now not only do the kids not get any money, nor do they even get to spend time with their fathers once they get locked up,” he said. “The closest you can get is visitation, and who wants their kids to see them behind bars or behind glass.”