Criminalizing Poverty

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There was a very interesting article on MSNBC today about the problems that are faced by dads who lose their jobs. Many are stuck in the situation where they are unable to pay child support. After months of failing to pay, the court issues a warrant for their arrest. Many times these dads are thrown in jail without ever talking with a lawyer.

Thousands of so-called “deadbeat” parents are jailed each year in the U.S. after failing to pay court-ordered child support.

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.

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.

I’ll stand with the fathers on this case. While I agree that there are some people out there who neglect their responsibilities, I know that most of the time so-called “deadbeat” fathers are victims lost jobs, injuries, or personal tragedies. Like the man in the story, when they lose a job, the maintenance obligation swells from a manageable percentage to immovable burden.

Unfortunately, Mr. Miller made the mistake we see all the time — “[he] went to jail without ever talking to an attorney.” Too often, we get clients who walk into our office 6 months after losing their jobs. They are underwater on child support and don’t have anywhere to turn.

What they don’t know is that they could have petitioned the court to modify their obligations as soon as their financial situation changed. The law provides four situations that will allow you to modify child support obligations:

1. Physical custody of the child has changed

2. The needs of the child have changed

3. The number of children involved has changed

4. The income of one or both parents has changed

However, the longer you wait, the greater your burden will grow because it is very unlikely that the court will retroactively modify your obligations. As soon as you know you need to change, contact a lawyer.

We believe that a father should not have to go to jail because he loses his job. We stand by our offer that if you call us, we will answer your questions on the phone for free. If you are facing a situation like Mr. Miller, don’t hesitate to call. We will help you out, give you advice, and if you want to hire us we’ll be happy make sure you are protected throughout the modification process.

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