Last week, Hall County parents late on child support payments had an opportunity to clear their delinquency penalty-free.
“This is basically an issue about amnesty,” said Hall’s Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard.
Officials said about 9,000 parents were chosen to participate in settlement week across the state.
They had from May 19-23 to visit a local Division of Child Support Services office to make a payment, sign a written payment agreement or get information on programs that help noncustodial parents stay in line with their payment order.
The idea is to incentivize payment from noncustodial parents wanting to come into compliance, but fearful of penalty. And in Georgia, that can amount to more than a fine; offenders can be jailed.
“We can prosecute abandonment, which is an interesting criminal charge which says if you leave a child without means, that is a crime,” Woodard said. “It’s a really big deal, because if parents don’t take care of their kids who does?”
Generally, the answer would be the state. Because the state also doesn’t want to shoulder the cost of an offender’s incarceration, Hall has in its treatment court system a Parental Accountability Court, Woodard said.
According to the county’s website, the court is a joint effort between Georgia Child Support Services, which reports about four in 10 noncustodial parents under court order to pay child support aren’t consistently paying.
“As an alternative to jail time, the six-month program focuses on resolving the causes for nonpayment, such as substance abuse and unemployment.
The court is led by Superior Court Bonnie Oliver, who oversees periodic hearings.
Woodard said that the realm of child support penalization may be evolving through case law.
“There was a Supreme Court decision about whether folks are entitled to attorneys if they are facing jail time for essentially being a deadbeat dad,” she said.
“(The decision) wasn’t a clear bright line, but it moved much more toward if they were facing a significant period time of incarceration, they should be entitled to court-appointed counsel.”
The accountability court seeks to embrace the alternative, guiding people toward an outcome not involving incarceration.
“That’s one of the reasons why the parent accountability court is so important, because it keeps people out of jail, and attempts to get them to work,” Woodard said.
It was often her experience when she practiced family law, she said, that parents harbored misconceptions regarding their obligations to children whose lives they weren’t a part of.
“Even if they don’t have custody, they still have a responsibility to support them,” she said. “The law says you pay, whether you see them, whether you have custody, you have to pay.”