Georgia Parents Languish in Debtors’ Jail
Randy Miller is a veteran of the Iraq War. While he served overseas, he never forgot about his children at home and maintained an excellent record of paying child support for over a decade. But after returning to his small hometown in Georgia, he lost his job in July 2009 and struggled to find full-time work. Still, Randy managed to continue to support his children, making about $2,700 in payments using money from income tax refunds and odd jobs. By October 2010, however, Randy had lost his home to foreclosure and exhausted his savings; his bank account contained just 39 cents. Because he was no longer able to pay his child support, he was incarcerated from November 2010 to February 2011, after a judge held him in civil contempt of a court order to pay child support.
In Georgia, aggressive efforts to incarcerate parents who have not paid child support are often focused on the poorest of the poor, rather than on those parents of means who simply choose not to pay. Languishing in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes more than a year, parents like Randy go to jail without ever talking to an attorney. Although Georgia law prohibits the state from continuing to imprison a parent who has no ability to pay child support, incarcerated parents have no meaningful ability to demonstrate this to a court unless they have legal representation.
Georgia’s policy of denying legal counsel to indigent parents facing incarceration has resulted in cases of extraordinary injustice. For example, Frank Hatley was jailed for 19 months, without counsel, for his inability to pay child support arrears—notwithstanding conclusive DNA evidence proving that Hatley was not the father of the child in question.
This spring, the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Open Society Foundations grantee, filed Miller, et al. v. Deal, et al., a civil rights class action lawsuit that seeks to secure lawyers for parents who have been jailed or are in danger of being jailed without counsel for being too poor to fulfill their child support obligations.
We are representing six parents who live in Georgia counties (including Cook, Emanuel, Floyd, and Walton) and who have tried to fulfill their child support obligations, but for reasons entirely out of their control, they cannot. For example, Lance Hendrix is a veteran who returned from military service to his economically depressed town and has been unable to find full-time work. Other parents, like Russell Davis, have disabilities that make it impossible for them to comply with their child support obligations, yet they have been sent to jail for falling behind in their payments. One young father, 20-year-old Joe Hunter, has been in the Walton County Jail since October 2010; months later he cannot afford to pay the $250 fee that would secure his release.
Listen to stories directly from those who’ve been affected in the short film above, made by the Southern Center for Human Rights.