Georgia Deprives Children As Indigent Parents Languish In Debtors’ Jail For Inability To Pay Child Support

Everyone agrees that parents must support their children. But sending parents to jail for child support debt just because they are poor is bad policy for children and families.
 
In Georgia, aggressive efforts to incarcerate parents for child support debt are often focused on the poor, rather than on wealthier parents who willfully dodge their child support obligations. Georgia is also one of the few states that forces indigent parents who owe child support debt to plead for their liberty, without counsel, against an experienced, state-funded lawyer who is trying to send them to jail.
 
Each year, Georgia jails thousands of 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.
 
In March 2011, SCHR filed Miller, et al. v. Deal, et al., Case No. 2011-cv-198121 (Fulton County Superior Court), on behalf of indigent parents jailed for child support debt in proceedings in which the State was represented by counsel, but the parent did not have counsel.  Please see below some answers to frequently asked questions about the case.
 
MILLER v. DEAL – FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
 
Who are the named plaintiffs and defendants in the lawsuit?
The named plaintiffs, five indigent parents who were incarcerated for child support debt, brought this lawsuit against Governor Nathan Deal, Director of the Georgia Department of Human Services (“DHS”), Clyde Reese, and various state officials, arguing that the State had denied them a lawyer in their civil child support contempt proceedings. The named plaintiffs allege that they have been incarcerated, some of them repeatedly, for child support debt, without counsel, in civil contempt proceedings in which the State entity seeking their incarceration was represented by a lawyer. Languishing in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes over a year, these parents and other indigent parents went to jail without ever talking to an attorney.
 
What is the purpose of the lawsuit?
The main legal issue in this case is whether indigent parents have a right to counsel in civil contempt proceedings in which they face incarceration, where DHS is represented by counsel. In their Complaint, Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief requiring the State to provide them counsel when they face jail for child support debt. In the alternative, Plaintiffs ask that DHS be stopped from seeking to jail indigent parents who can’t afford lawyers to represent them in civil child support contempt proceedings. None of the plaintiffs in the case are asking for money damages.
 
What is the current status of the case?
At this time, there has been no ruling on the merits of the case.  On December 30, 2011, the Fulton County Superior Court granted class action status. The State appealed the class certification decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals. On March 20, 2013, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's class certification decision.  On January 21, 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument on the issue of class certification.
 
Can SCHR represent me in my individual child support case?
No. SCHR cannot represent you in your individual child support contempt matter. Nor can we assist you with a modification. SCHR has limited resources and we have received over 1,000 requests for assistance in child support matters in recent months. The State currently does not provide appointed counsel to persons facing jail for child support debt in proceedings initiated by DHS. The purpose of the class action case is to attempt to require the State to provide counsel to indigent parents in these circumstances.
If you are currently incarcerated in Georgia for child support debt and cannot afford to pay your purge fee, you may file a petition for release from incarceration. You may download instructions and a form petition here: Defendant's Pro Se Petition for Release From Incarceration for Child Support Debt
 
What are some steps I can take if I am facing jail for child support debt?
  • If you are under a court order to pay child support, you must obey the order if you can. If you are unable to make full payments, make partial payments. Willful disobedience of a court order can result in going to jail.  
  • If you are disabled or cannot work due to medical or mental health conditions, try to bring recent documentation showing your condition to court with you.
  • If you are looking for work, bring evidence of your job search to court with you (e.g. job applications). If you have recently found work, bring documents to court showing that you have a new job.
  • If you are under a court order to pay child support through the Georgia Department of Human Services, be careful about making payments directly to the custodial parent. The Department and the judge may not have any record of payments made directly to family members. Also, keep documentation of all payments made.
  • SCHR has received many letters from people who have been jailed for missing child support court. Missing a child support contempt hearing will likely result in your arrest for failure to appear in court. If your child support case was initiated by DHS, make sure that you keep your DHS child support agent informed of your mailing address so you will receive notices about hearings.
How can I review court documents from the Miller v. Deal case?
Please see below some of the documents filed in the case. You may contact SCHR if you wish to see other legal documents from the case.
 
Click here for a link to read the Georgia Court of Criminal Appeals order reversing class certification.
Click here for a link to the Court’s order granting class certification status.
Click here for a link to SCHR's reply brief in support of amended motion for class certification.
Click here for a link to the Complaint in Miller v. Deal.
 
Where can I find more information about this issue?
Videos about indigent parents jailed for child support debt:
 
Press coverage on this issue:
The Fulton County Daily Report: 'Debtors prison' challenged
Georgia Public Broadcasting: Parents Sue Over Child Support Jail Time