A fugitive people within a nation is tyranny.

Posts tagged ‘veteran’

U.S. Law with a Serious Flaw

homelessA new law is on the books that promises great harm to people that can afford it the least.

The law bars creditors from seizing Social Security payments and other federal benefits for veterans, the poor, the aged and the disabled. But banks often said they could not determine the source of customers’ deposits and allowed creditors to garnish accounts containing federal funds. The new rule adds electronic tags to automatically deposited government payments and requires banks to protect tagged deposits made in the prior two months.

Here’s the issue: The new rule will still allow seizure of all funds in an account if a state is trying to collect unpaid child support. That may seem to be a good way to get tough on deadbeat dads, but it will cause undue harm.

In a letter to the commissioner of Social Security, the National Consumer Law Center and 72 other advocacy groups pointed out that 70 percent of uncollected child support is owed by people who live below the poverty line and much of the debt arose because support obligations were not revised when the debtor became disabled, unemployed or incarcerated. Since the debts are often old, the amounts have been inflated by interest and penalties.

To both collect the debts and avoid driving these debtors into complete destitution, the law allows Social Security to withhold up to 65 percent of a benefit to cover unpaid child support — and to pay the recipient the rest. Recipients of reduced benefits have been able to shield the remainder by receiving their payment via paper check and simply cashing it. Starting next year, all government benefits will be automatically deposited. If the rule is not amended, the full amount will be subject to seizure.

The way to fix the problem is to rework the garnishment rule so that it treats child support debts the same way it treats other debts. Fixing the rule would not excuse nonpayment of child support. Rather, it would achieve what the law intended by ensuring that no one is impoverished by ruthless debt collection.

original post at New York Times: February 23, 2012

Paperless Child Support Payments May Cost Poor Fathers Only

check book slavery

Old child support debts could cost thousands of poor men their only income next year because of a policy aimed at reducing the cost to the government of mailing paper checks to pay federal benefits.

The Treasury Department will start paying benefits electronically next March. It will stop issuing the paper checks that many people rely on to safeguard a portion of their benefits from states trying to collect back child support.

States can freeze the bank accounts of people who owe child support. A separate Treasury Department rule, in place since last May in a preliminary form, guarantees them the power to freeze Social Security, disability and veterans’ benefits that have been deposited into those accounts.

Once paper checks are eliminated, about 275,000 people could lose access to all of their income, advocates say.

“It’s kind of Orwellian, what’s being set up here for a segment of the population,” says Johnson Tyler, an attorney who represents poor and disabled people collecting federal benefits. “It’s going to be a nightmare in about a year unless something changes.”

In many cases, the bills are decades old and the children long grown. Much of the money owed is interest and fees that add up when men are unable to pay because they are disabled, institutionalized or imprisoned.

Most of the money will go to governments, not to the children of the men with child support debts, independent analyses show. States are allowed to keep child support money as repayment for welfare previously provided for those children.

In some instances, the grown children are supporting their fathers.

The rule change illustrates how a politically desirable goal like cracking down on so-called deadbeat dads can have complicated, even counterproductive, effects in practice.

“The rule doesn’t look at the fact that the money is mostly interest, the money is going to the state, the kids are usually adults, and it’s leaving the payer with nothing,” says Ashlee Highland, a legal aid attorney who works with the poor of Chicago.

Highland says her office has clients in eviction, in foreclosure and unable to pay their bills because of states’ aggressive efforts to collect back child support.

Marcial Herrera, 44, has had his bank account frozen repeatedly since 2009, blocking his access to $800 a month in government benefits. Unable to work because of a severe back injury he suffered in 2000, Herrera fell behind on child support. He owes more than $7,000 – not to his 22-year-old son, but to the state of New York, because his son received welfare years earlier.

Herrera sought help in court and had his son speak on his behalf, but the judge could not erase the thousands he already owed.

“I’m just waiting for them to lock me up,” he says. “I don’t see no other way of me repaying that debt.”

A legal aid attorney suggested Herrera collect his benefits by paper check. It costs him $15 to cash the check each month, but at least he can be sure that he will have money to pay his bills.

States have had the ability to freeze accounts for years. That’s why people like Herrera rely on paper checks to safeguard part of their income.

Starting next March, that option will disappear. The Treasury Department will deposit federal benefits directly into bank accounts or load them onto prepaid debit cards. Either way, state child support agencies will be able to seize all of it.

Electronic payments are expected to save the government $1 billion over the next 10 years, the Treasury Department says. It costs the government about $1 to mail a check, compared with about 10 cents for an electronic transfer.

The Treasury Department understands that forcing people into direct deposit could deprive them of all of their income, say officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the rule-writing process.

States can garnish only 65 percent of benefits before the federal government sends them out. But the limit does not apply once the money is in an account and states ask banks to freeze it, according to a Treasury Department memo obtained by The Associated Press.

A Treasury spokesman declined to discuss the policy. The officials who spoke on condition of anonymity say they believe the policy is legally unavoidable. They described a dilemma: Restrain states trying to collect child-support debts or risk depriving thousands of people of their only income.

Treasury’s legal justification assumes that receiving a paper check is still an option, says Tyler, the Brooklyn attorney.

Letting state agencies seize the money contradicts the public stance of the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency in charge of child support collections. The department does not want states to collect child support so aggressively that poor people lose their only income, spokesman Ken Wolfe says.

“Child support enforcement – getting that money and passing it on to parents and children – is a measure to fight poverty, and it doesn’t make sense to accomplish that by impoverishing somebody else,” he says.

Wolfe said HHS is developing guidelines for states to “make sure we’re not putting someone into deep poverty as a result of an automatic collection.” He declined to provide details of those plans.

Lawyers from HHS agreed with Treasury’s decision to let states seize benefits, according to the Treasury memo.

An early version of the Treasury department rule protected people from having their federal benefits frozen by debt collectors – including private collection agencies and states seeking back child support.

State child support agencies replied in public comments on the proposed rule that blocking their access to people’s benefits would cause great harm to parents and children receiving child support.

HHS research suggests the policy could deepen the hardship for people who collect benefits as well.

People who owe large amounts of child support are almost universally poor. Among those owing $30,000 or more, three-fourths had no reported income or income of less than $10,000, HHS says. Many had their earnings interrupted by disability or jail time and are unlikely to repay the child support debt, the government-sponsored research says.

The usual methods of collecting back child support often don’t work with the poor. States typically start by garnishing wages. If that doesn’t work, they can suspend driver’s licenses, revoke passports and take away professional credentials.

Those measures have little effect on poor people without jobs who rely on federal benefits. They have no wages to garnish and no passports. Many can’t afford a car and do not need a driver’s license.

State child support agencies echo the HHS view that child support enforcement should not be so draconian that people end up with nothing.

“You don’t want the noncustodial parent to go out and be living on the streets. You’re not going to collect anything at that point,” says Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

The Idaho department requires people who owe child support to show good faith by paying a minimum amount and seeking jobs when they are out of work, Shanahan says.

The White House is reviewing the final version of the rule. Its impact so far has been limited, legal-aid lawyers say, because people can still use paper checks. A White House spokeswoman did not respond a request for comment.

In a letter sent last week, the National Consumer Law Center and dozens of other groups called on the head of the Social Security Administration to withdraw his support for the rule.

“While both current and past due child support orders should be paid,” the letter said, it should not result “in the complete impoverishment of recipients” of federal benefits.

The issue has failed to raise alarm in part because most people feel little in common with men labeled deadbeat dads, says John Vail, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Litigation who provided legal services for the poor for decades.

“There’s not a lot of sympathy for deadbeat dads, and justly so,” Vail says. “But everybody’s got limits, and I think people who have never walked a mile in some of those old, worn-out shoes are a little quick to rush to judgment about what that life might be like.”

from the Huffington Post

Child Support: New Wrinkle to Garnishing Your Social Security

decisions about wealth and lifestyleHere’s an off-the-wall retirement planning wrinkle.

New rules take affect May 1 that make it much harder for creditors to garnish Social Security, veterans pensions, Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability from recipients who owe them money.

The new U.S. Treasury rule requires all banks to determine whether an account contains these protected funds. If an account contains protected funds, the bank is required to protect two months’ of benefit payments from garnishment. Protection of more than two months’ of benefit payments requires additional court filings and in practice, makes these funds immune from seizure by creditors, says Margot Saunders, an attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.

It works like this. You fail to pay your car payment and the car dealer comes and takes the car, then he sues and gets a judgment against you for the remainder of what you owe him. He goes to the bank and attempts to garnish your money. Under the new rule, the creditor can pick any day he wants for the garnishment and the bank must respond by looking at your account for the previous 60 days. Let’s say you received a $1,100 Social Security payment one month and another $1,100 Social Security payment the next month. That $2,200 is protected. If there is any other money above and beyond that amount that has been deposited in the account during that period and is still sitting there, the creditor gets it. If there is no other money, the creditor is out of luck. He gets bupkis.

There are two exceptions, Saunders says: money you owe Uncle Sam and money you owe in child support. If you have these kind of debts, an attorney or the IRS can petition Social Security directly and collect.

If a debt collector begs to differ, Saunders points them to this statement on the Social Security website. She says garnishment of Social Security has always been against the law, but creditors have found ways around it. This change in the rule should eliminate those loopholes. On the other hand, if you fear you might find yourself in this kind of debt-collection dilemma during your retirement, the best way to protect yourself is to have your Social Security check deposited into an account that you don’t use for anything else.

Fathers Challenge Jail Sentences for Child Support

by Greg Bluestein
Associated Press

captiveAfter Lance Hendrix returned from military service in 2009, he landed part-time construction work and odd jobs to help pay the child support he owed for his daughter. He managed to pay about $3,800, but when he couldn’t afford to the rest, a judge threw Hendrix in jail for four months.

The 24-year-old is one of five fathers behind a legal challenge targeting a law that allows judges to put parents in jail if they can’t make child support payments. The dads say it perpetuates a disastrous cycle, as the parents wind up losing their jobs, making it harder for them to pay up. The lawsuit aims to force Georgia to provide the parents attorneys at hearings so they can better defend themselves.

“They’re putting people in jail that have no means of even supporting themselves,” Hendrix said. “Who’s going to want to hire me from jail? ‘Hello, my name is Lance Hendrix and I’m currently an inmate in Cook County Jail. Would you mind hiring me?’ Yeah right.”

Imprisoning parents over child support payments has become routine in Georgia. At least 3,500 parents have been jailed in child support cases without being provided attorneys since January 2010, according to court records. In October 2011, 845 parents were jailed in Georgia for child support proceedings.

“We absolutely have a modern day debtor’s prison,” said Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Atlanta-based organization representing the fathers. “They are forgotten about. And in many instances, the parent is sent to jail and they’re called back into court only when someone remembers that they’re there.”

The Georgia attorney general’s office and the state’s Department of Human Services declined comment on the litigation. In court filings, state attorneys said the lawsuit was unnecessary because parents could avoid incarceration by appealing the contempt orders that send them to jail. State attorneys also said locking parents up is a last resort to hold parents accountable.

If the lawsuit prevails, it could bring big changes to Georgia’s legal system, forcing the state to set aside potentially millions of dollars to pay for lawyers for the parents. Geraghty said she also hopes it could bring a shift in tactics, prodding the state to garnish the wages of delinquent parents or put liens on their property rather than incarcerate them.

“The problem that we see in Georgia is the state often uses incarceration as a first resort rather than a last resort,” she said.

The five fathers cleared a major hurdle recently when a judge granted class-action status, allowing thousands of other indigent parents who were imprisoned to join the lawsuit. The December order, by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, only applies to those who can’t afford to pay for an attorney, not those who can hire one but choose not to do so.

The sentences given to the parents — some have spent more than a year in jail — are a result in a quirk in Georgia law. Anyone charged with criminal contempt has the right to an attorney and can only be imprisoned for 20 days. But child support hearings are civil matters, and parents charged with contempt in those cases are often jailed for far longer, without counsel.

Georgia is one of four states that don’t require indigent plaintiffs facing jail in child support cases to be appointed attorneys. The state, meanwhile, often has experienced lawyers.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in June holding that indigent parents don’t have the right to counsel in a child support hearing where the state wasn’t involved . But this lawsuit says there are thousands of cases in Georgia untouched by the ruling because the state represents the other side.

The plaintiffs and the other parents who could join the class-action lawsuit are a diverse group that includes military veterans, immigrants, the homeless and even a pregnant woman.

One is 40-year-old Randy Miller, a veteran of the Iraq war who has paid about $75,000 in child support for his two daughters over the years. He lost his job at AT&T and then lost his home in 2010, and at one point had as little as 39 cents in his bank account.

He was jailed for three months when he was unable to pay his $800 obligation. He was released in February 2011, but still owes money and fears he could be jailed again.

Hendrix is now working odd jobs, helping renovate restaurants and build furniture. He’s taken to buying canned foods from discount stores rather than fast food. He relies on help from family to pay some bills.

But it’s still not enough to pay the $480 he owes his ex-wife each month for their 5-year-old daughter, so he risks being incarcerated again.

“It’s an impossible situation,” he said. “And I can’t find a job when I’m in jail.”

this article is as it appeared in the Washington Examiner

Unable to Pay Child Support, Poor Parents Land Behind Bars

Judges can jail alleged defaulters — who are not covered by the presumption of innocence — without a trial

by Mike Brunker

from MSNBC September 19, 2011

obama

Barack Obama

It may not be a crime to be poor, but it can land you behind bars if you also are behind on your child-support payments.

Thousands of so-called “deadbeat” parents are jailed each year in the U.S. after failing to pay court-ordered child support — the vast majority of them for withholding or hiding money out of spite or a feeling that they’ve been unfairly gouged by the courts.

But in what might seem like an un-American plot twist from a Charles Dickens’ novel, advocates for the poor say, some parents are wrongly being locked away without any regard for their ability to pay — sometimes without the benefit of legal representation.

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.

“I felt that with my payment history and that I had just started working, maybe I would be able to convince the judge to give me another month and a half to start making the payments again,” he told msnbc.com. “… But that didn’t sit too well with him because he went ahead and decided to lock me up.”

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.

‘Debtors’ prisons’?
“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.

They compare the plight of such parents to the poor people consigned to infamous “debtors’ prisons” before such institutions were outlawed in the early 1800s.

“I try very carefully not to exaggerate, but I do think that’s an apt comparison,” said Sarah Geraghty, the attorney handling the Georgia case for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“And I think anyone who went down and watched one of these proceedings would agree with me. … You see a room full of indigent parents — most of them African-American — and you have a judge and attorney general, both of whom are white. The hearings often take only 15 seconds. The judge asks, ‘Do you have any money to pay?’ the person pleads and the judge says, ‘OK you’re going to jail,’” she added.

The threat of jailing delinquent parents is intended to coerce them to pay, but in rare cases it can have tragic results.

In June, a New Hampshire father and military veteran, Thomas Ball, died after dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself ablaze in front of the Cheshire County Court House.

In a long, rambling letter to the local Sentinel newspaper, the 58-year-old Ball stated that he did so to focus attention on what he considered unfair domestic violence laws and because he expected to be jailed at an upcoming hearing on his failure to pay up to $3,000 in delinquent child support, even though he had been out of work for two years.

The ability of judges to jail parents without a trial is possible because failure to pay child support is usually handled as a civil matter, meaning that the non-custodial parent — or the “contemnor” in legal terms — is found guilty of contempt of court and ordered to appear at a hearing.

He or she is not entitled to some constitutional protections that criminal defendants receive, including the presumption of innocence. And in five states — Florida, Georgia, Maine, South Carolina and Ohio — one of the omitted protections is the right to an attorney.

Randall Kessler, a family law attorney in Atlanta and chairman of the American Bar Association’s family law division, said states have a great deal of leeway in family law, which includes child support cases.

“The main reason states are patchwork is because family law is a local idea,” he said. “It’s very infrequent that the federal government gets into family law, except for international custody every now and then and violence against women. … Each community’s laws are different in the way they treat child support collection, and the right to a lawyer and the right to a jury trial varies.”

Supreme Court: No right to a lawyer
The child support program currently serves approximately 17 million U.S. children, or nearly a quarter of the nation’s minors, according to a recent study by Elaine Sorensen, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

Critics of incarceration without representation had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would end the practice in its ruling in Turner v. Rogers, a case involving a South Carolina man who was repeatedly jailed for up to a year after failing to pay child support.

But the court ruled 5-4 in June that poor parents are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer when facing jail for non-payment of child support. Instead, the justices said, states should use “substantial procedural safeguards” to ensure that those who have no means to pay are not locked up.

That is likely to force the states that don’t guarantee the right to an attorney to tighten their policies, said Colleen Eubanks, executive director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, which represents state agencies. “Obviously they’re going to have to look at changing the rules,” she said.

Ken Wolfe, a spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which imposes some rules on state child support enforcement agencies in exchange for funding, said the agency expects to issue guidance to the states next month regarding the Turner case. He declined to provide any details.

But Libba Patterson, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former director of the state Department of Social Services, said the Supreme Court ruling provides “very weak protections” for poor parents and is unlikely on its own to solve the problem of wrongful incarceration of poor parents.

“It depends on the extent to which the court is truly interested in making a full inquiry on the ability-to-pay issue and on the resources the court has and the amount of judicial time,” she said.

Even in states where the non-custodial parents do have the right to a lawyer, those without the financial resources to meet their child-support obligations still frequently land in jail.

A 2009 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C., found that only half of the child support debtors in California prisons had reported income in the two preceding years. And the median net income of the others was a mere $2,881.

65 percent of paycheck taken
Geraghty, the Southern Center for Human Rights attorney, said part of the problem is that courts often order poor parents to pay too much for child support in the first place, increasing the likelihood that they will fall behind on payments.

“One of my former clients worked at the Piggly Wiggly (supermarket) and they were taking 65 percent of her paycheck,” she said. “It left her in a position where there was simply no way that she could survive on the amount that she had left.”

No one can say how many parents are jailed each year for failing to pay child support, because states typically do not track such cases.

But an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics in 2002 by the Urban Institute’s Sorensen found that approximately 10,000 men were in jail for non-payment of child support, representing 1.7 percent of the overall U.S. jail population.

Most observers believe that number has risen as a result of the troubled U.S. economy.

In fiscal 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Child Support Enforcement program saw child support collections decline for the first time in the history of the program, dipping 1.8 percent, the GAO reported in January.

At the same time, payments collected from unemployment insurance benefits nearly tripled, and the number of cases in which children were receiving public assistance also rose.

Military veterans, who often struggle to find work when they leave the service, appear to be particularly at risk.

Lance Hendrix of Adel, Ga., an Army veteran, said he fell behind on child support for his 4-year-old daughter after he left the service and couldn’t find work.

“I was arrested and I went to jail and they asked me all sorts of questions,” said Hendrix, who also is a plaintiff in the Georgia lawsuit. “I was never told I was under arrest. And I was never read my rights. So I did not know what rights I had. Of course, I’ve seen all these movies, but half that isn’t true.”

Not having a lawyer in a civil contempt hearing increases the likelihood that the parent will be jailed, even if he or she is not guilty of “willfully” defying the court’s order, say critics of the policy.

‘Wrongfully imprisoned’
“In the absence of counsel … it appears that the opportunity to raise the defense is often missed, and large numbers of indigent parents are wrongfully imprisoned for failure to meet child support obligations every year,” according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Turner case by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.

The deck is further stacked against the delinquent parent because the state often acts as the plaintiff, seeking to recover the cost of providing public assistance to the child, Geraghty said.

Officials of Georgia’s Child Support Services agency declined to comment on the state’s child support enforcement policies or the lawsuit.

But Seth Harp, a retired Georgia state senator and former member of the state’s Child Support Guidelines Commission, said the state’s judges use incarceration sparingly.

“The methodology to put someone in jail requires that the person be taken to court before a judge and there they have to be found in willful contempt — someone who actively refuses to seek work or is hiding assets, something like that,” he said. “Judges don’t want to put people in jail. … The whole purpose is to get these people to support their children.”

Harp said he’s seen the tactic work repeatedly in his long career as a family law attorney.

“You can’t get blood out of a turnip, but you can put the turnip in the cooler,” he said. “And in 34 years of doing this, it’s amazing, you put someone in the cooler and the money seems to come.”

Judge Janice M. Rosa, a supervising court judge in New York’s 8th Judicial District and a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said the system in her state adequately protects non-custodial parents by guaranteeing them a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one and carefully determining that they have the ability to pay.

“No one here is going to jail when a factory closes down and you’re one of hundreds looking for a job,” she said. “… Every state has said that debtors’ prisons are illegal, and you have to give these people a way out. You can only put them in jail if they have money and won’t pay.”

Attempt to assist both parents
Eubanks, the National Child Support Enforcement Association official, said state programs in general are doing a better job in recent years of ensuring that the poor aren’t unfairly locked up by instituting programs to help non-custodial parents improve work, life and parenting skills.

“Five to 10 years ago, the program was pretty much about enforcing support. But now it’s moving to the understanding that if parents are going to support their children, they need assistance,” she said. “Our philosophy is to provide whatever tools we can to both parents to support their children.”

She also said the recent Supreme Court decision prompted the association to conduct training and outreach to ensure that state agencies are aware of the issue and have adequate safeguards in place to prevent indigent parents from being wrongly jailed.

That is no comfort to Miller, the Iraq war veteran who was jailed for three months. He said jailing parents who fall behind on their payments is counterproductive and should be reserved for only the most egregious violators.

“I feel like it’s more unfair to the kids, because now not only do the kids not get any money, nor do they even get to spend time with their fathers once they get locked up,” he said. “The closest you can get is visitation, and who wants their kids to see them behind bars or behind glass.”

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USA Law & the Illegal Debtors Prison

by E.J. Manning

indigent in AmericaIt’s not advertised as a crime to be poor, but it can land you behind bars when you also are behind on your child-support payments. Thousands of so-called “deadbeat” parents are jailed each year in the United States after failing to pay court-ordered child support. It sounds like a bad plot twist from a Charles Dickens novel. This unconstitutional and illegal activity is justified by the system though. It is claimed that the vast majority of non-custodial parents are jailed for deliberately withholding or hiding money out of spite or a feeling that they’ve been unfairly gouged by the courts. The truth is that parents are wrongly being locked away without any regard for their ability to pay, even without legal representation.

A 39-year-old Iraqi war veteran found himself in that situation in November, when a judge in Floyd County, Georgia, sent him to jail for violating a court order to pay child support. 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. “I felt that with my payment history and that I had just started working, maybe I would be able to convince the judge to give me another month and a half to start making the payments again… but that didn’t sit too well with him because he went ahead and decided to lock me up.” Miller spent three months in jail before being released, 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 Southern Center of Human Rights in Atlanta. While jailing non-paying parents 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. They rightly compare the plight of such parents to the poor people consigned to infamous “debtors’ prisons” before such institutions were outlawed in the early 1800s.

The threat of jailing delinquent parents is intended to coerce them to pay, but in rare cases it can have tragic results. In June, a New Hampshire father and military veteran, Thomas Ball, died after dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself ablaze in front of the Cheshire County Court House. In a long, rambling letter to the local Sentinel newspaper, the 58-year-old Ball stated that he did so to focus attention on what he considered unfair domestic violence laws and because he expected to be jailed at an upcoming hearing on his failure to pay up to $3,000 in delinquent child support, even though he had been out of work for two years.

What the legal loophole? The ability of judges to jail parents without a trial is possible because failure to pay child support is usually handled as a civil matter, meaning that the non-custodial parent is found guilty of contempt of court and ordered to appear at a hearing. As a result, he or she is not entitled to some constitutional protections that criminal defendants receive, including the presumption of innocence. States have a great deal of leeway in family law, which includes child support cases.

The child support program currently serves approximately 17 million U.S. children, or nearly a quarter of the nation’s minors. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that poor parents are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer when facing jail for non-payment of child support. The justices said that states should use “substantial procedural safeguards” to ensure that those who have no means to pay are not locked up. Accordingly, poor parents are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer when facing jail for non-payment of child support. The fact remains that the Supreme Court ruling provides very weak protections for poor parents and will not solve the problem of wrongful incarceration of poor parents. The fact remains that even in states where the non-custodial parents do have the right to a lawyer, those without the financial resources to meet their child-support obligations frequently land in jail anyway.

A 2009 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Washington, D.C., found that only half of the child support debtors in California prisons had reported income in the two preceding years. The median net income of the rest of the non-custodial parents was a mere $2,881, well below the U.S. poverty level. Courts often order poor parents to pay too much for child support in the first place, increasing the likelihood that they will fall behind on payments. The percentage of child support that can be removed from a paycheck depends on the laws of the state regarding garnishment.

No one can say how many parents are jailed each year for failing to pay child support, because states typically do not track such cases. The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics suggest that approximately 10,000 parents were jailed in 2002 for non-payment of child support which represents 1.7 percent of the overall U.S. jail population. That number is undoubtedly up since the U.S. economic meltdown. After the meltdown in October 2008, the child support enforcement program registered a decrease in child support collection for the first time ever. Payments collected from unemployment insurance benefits nearly tripled and the number of cases in which children were receiving public assistance also rose.

Military veterans are especially at risk as they struggle to find work when they leave the armed services. One veteran noted that he fell behind on child support for his 4-year-old daughter after he left the service and couldn’t find work. “I was arrested and I went to jail and they asked me all sorts of questions. I was never told I was under arrest and I was never read my rights. So I did not know what rights I had. Of course, I’ve seen all these movies, but half that isn’t true.” Not having a lawyer in a civil contempt hearing increases the likelihood that the parent will be jailed, even if he or she is not guilty of “willfully” defying the court’s order, say critics of the policy.

In the absence of counsel the opportunity to raise the defense is often missed, and large numbers of indigent parents are wrongfully imprisoned for failure to meet child support obligations every year. The deck is further stacked against the delinquent parent because the state often acts as the plaintiff, seeking to recover the cost of providing public assistance to the child. The state has every benefit to do because they receive money from the Federal Government for collecting child support.

Every state has laws that mandate the illegality of debtors prisons. The state is morally required to give impoverished people a way out. The law says that you can only put non-custodial parents in jail if they have money and won’t pay. That simply isn’t the case and reality proves it.

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Protect Disabled Fathers from Family Court Abuses!

Work to Protect Disabled Fathers from Family Court Abuses! Arizona HB 2348 is being voted on today, designed to protect disabled fathers and mothers from child support and alimony abuses. Concerned and supportive Americans all over the nation are encouraged to email and fax a letter to your local representative in support of the bill and legislation that support this cause. This is a national issue and supporters both inside and outside of Arizona are encouraged to participate.

Although federal law is clear, advocate judges are often ignoring federal law as they calculate veterans’ disability compensation into divorce settlements as a divisible asset. Very often these payments are the only assets a veteran has. When judges include disability compensation as income, this creates great hardship for those veterans, who rarely have the resources to hire legal help to contest the taking of their benefits. Anyone that is disabled and living on meager social security disability should be protected! HB 2348 will help end this practice in Arizona. We need to end this fiasco nationwide! A nation of veterans and disabled parents need your help and protection!

We have links to databases that hold the names and contact details for your current legislators. Use your freedom of speech and right to petition government representatives for the good of America!

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