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Attorneys Vic Hill and Brad MacDonald

Child Support and the Problem of ‘Debtor Imprisonment’: Part II

In our previous post we began looking at the issue of deadbeat parents who are imprisoned for failure to pay child support. Increasingly, parents who have been incarcerated for not paying child support are filing motions requesting representation to ensure due process.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will be considering an appeal from a South Carolina man who was imprisoned for failing to pay child support. The man appealing the case was jailed after facing contempt for failure to pay over $5,700 in child support for his daughter. After kicking an addiction to drugs, he broke his back when he was finally able to find work. Hoping for a chance to start over, he was incarcerated for not paying child support. His debt continues to build.

According to the man’s attorney, imprisoning a parent for inability to pay child support is merely punitive and is illegal and creates “de facto debtors’ prison[s] for [parents] who genuinely cannot pay. … As a matter of fundamental fairness, [my client] should have been afforded the assistance of counsel to show that he could not [pay].” The U.S. Justice Department argues that the man did not have a categorical right to counsel, but that the lower court’s ruling should still be overturned since parents should have a better, more meaningful opportunity to show they are unable to pay child support.

The court’s decision in the case could change the way Georgia courts handle child-support contempt cases. Like South Carolina, Georgia does not provide lawyers to handle cases where indigent parents face contempt for failure to pay child support.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, though, feels that requiring courts to provide representation for indigent parents could have a negative effect on the system by allowing parents to avoid jail time when there are no resources to provide them with attorneys.

Regardless of what happens in the upcoming Supreme Court case, paying child support will undoubtedly continue to be a struggle for many parents. Much of the issue centers on whether courts wish to emphasize the importance of supporting children or whether they are willing to acknowledge financial difficulties in some cases and give parents a better opportunity to make a good faith effort to fulfill their child support obligations.

Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, “‘Deadbeat’ parents caught in a debtor’s prison,” Bill Rankin, 24 Jan 2011.