A lawsuit, filed by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) for six Georgia parents who have been jailed for delinquent child support payments, demands that Georgia provide lawyers for the parents at contempt hearings.
The lawsuit, Miller v. Deal, was filed in Fulton County Superior Court. SCHR claims Georgia law doesn’t permit authorities to jail a parent who cannot pay child support.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted attorney Sarah Geraghty as saying, “This case is about good, hard-working parents who love their children but are carted off to jail when they fall behind in their child support payments, often through no fault of their own.”
The lawsuit alleges the parents fell behind in their child support obligations and, because they couldn’t afford an attorney, they couldn’t prove their inability to pay. Some of these parents have been in jail for over a year.
The lawsuit was filed as a class action. According to SCHR, “On any given day, there are over 500 parents in Georgia jails who have been incarcerated solely for their inability to pay court-ordered child support.”
Child Support Contempt Cases
The most severe penalty for failing to pay child support is a contempt charge. An action for contempt is a civil proceeding because its purpose is remedial rather than punitive – to compel obedience to the order of the court (here, the child support order).
The SCHR alleges that the parties in this case have fallen into the trap of not being able to prove their actions are not willful because of their lack of legal understanding and their inability to afford an attorney.
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard similar arguments in the South Carolina case of Turner v. Rogers. A decision is due by summer of 2011.