You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

Child support scofflaws given alternative to jail


John C. Cook’s life was a mess. He was divorced, and child support payments for his three children were so far in arrears he feared there was no way to catch up.

Then in May 2005, the law intervened. Cook landed in jail for driving under the influence and he was held on contempt for missed child support payments.

Instead of the judge scrutinizing him for his past failures, Cook said, “I got the chance to talk to him about my life.”

Cook, 34, had been upended by his divorce. His ex-wife had custody of their three children. He started to drink to deal with the emotional pain. And even though he loved his children, he just couldn’t hold a job long enough to get a paycheck.

“I had hit bottom,” Cook said recently.

That day in court, Cook was the recipient of some badly needed compassion, a rare commodity in a place where child support orders and accumulated missed payments can exceed a parent’s ability to pay.

According to Cobb County Superior Court Judge Ann Harris, parents in Georgia who are under court order to pay child support and fail to do so without a legal reason to justify their failure can be held in contempt of court. The penalty is jail until they pay some or all of the amount owed.

RELATED: Should parents be jailed for failing to pay child support

RELATED: Georgia House OKs bill to protect men incorrectly accused of paternity

But under the Parental Accountability Court (PAC) programs sweeping Georgia, that’s changing, said Tanguler Gray, director of the division of child support services for the Department of Human Services (DHS).

In our zeal to get fathers — and sometime mothers — to pay up, it’s important to remember that children need both parents’ financial support and their involvement in their lives. Neither of these things can happen if they are locked behind bars.

This is a challenging area of the law, but pressing the system — both the courts and DHS — to become more responsive to the extraordinary difficulties facing some parents, while remaining conscious of the financial and parental needs of their children, is really how we care for children best.

That shows in the results DHS has seen since PAC began.

The program, launched in 2012 in partnership with the state’s Superior Court, has helped more than 2,700 parents like Cook remove the obstacles that prevented them from paying child support, Gray said. That represents 4,780 children who have received $2.8 million in child support payments and a savings of $10 million to the state in jail costs over four years, from 2012 to 2016.

For some parents, there are barriers such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and lack of education and job skills that keep them from holding a job and making payments.

Although some barriers are self-inflicted, Harris said that when they are addressed through the court system, parents can once again become financially supportive of their children.

PACs, Harris said, are an alternative to incarceration and are modeled after other accountability programs begun years ago as part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reforms.

Under the program, which typically lasts 18 months, parents are assigned a coordinator who helps match their needs with community resources. They are required to meet at least once a month with a Superior Court judge to discuss their progress, their plans for the immediate future and their long-term goals. Above all, the program focuses on helping parents get and keep jobs. Participants do not “graduate” until they have consistently met their child support obligations for at least six months.

After just one year, Gray said the department saw child support payments increase for parents who received those services.

It was then, she said, that her department started reaching out to Superior Court judges like Harris to try and expand the program’s reach to other judicial circuits.

As of today, the program is in 32 judicial circuits, including Fulton, Gwinnett and most recently Cobb County.

Harris is a former Cobb County prosecutor who has spent nearly 20 years dealing with family law matters.

When she heard of PAC, she knew from experience it could work in her courtroom.

“The days of holding debtors prisons is long behind us,” Harris said. “It’s a win on multiple levels. A win to the department because we are aligning with the governor’s criminal justice reform. It’s a win to the child support program. It’s a win for the families we serve because we’re providing additional services to both the custodial and non-custodial parents.”

RELATED: New court pushes fathers to make turnaround

RELATED: Single-father families outpace ones led by single mothers

It’s also a win for judges, she said, because the interaction between them and the program’s participants has improved.

“Participants value the personal attention they get from the judge in a black robe who is genuinely interested in improving their condition,” Gray said. “And participants who graduate from this program tend to reconnect with their children.”

That’s exactly what happened for Cook.

After two years of missing payments, Cook said his PAC program coordinator was “right there the whole way.”

“He gave me the confidence to live my life again,” he said

Cook, now 46, works at a local restaurant and hasn’t missed work or his child support payments since. His biggest joy?

Buying his 17-year-old a prom dress this year.

“She Facetimed while she shopped for it,” Cook said. “It was beautiful. She looked fantastic.”

Recently he got the chance to spend the weekend with his children, and come May 20 he will be there to watch his oldest daughter graduate from high school.

“It’s been a long road, but it’s been well worth it,” he said. “You’re talking to a totally different person and for that I’m eternally grateful.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Cobb sailor planned surprise visit home before fatal crash in Okinawa
Cobb sailor planned surprise visit home before fatal crash in Okinawa

Savannah Cagle meant to be at home to solemnly pay respect to the fallen military members this Memorial Day. Instead, the Navy is planning a military funeral to be held Friday. The 20-year-old and her boyfriend, Airman 1st Class Gabriel Antonio Fuentes-Lebron of Florida, were killed in a motorcycle crash last week. Her father, Alan Cagle, said...
Drowning victim pulled from Lake Allatoona; had been missing since Friday
Drowning victim pulled from Lake Allatoona; had been missing since Friday

Game wardens from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources pulled the body of a 55-year-old woman, missing in Lake Allatoona since Friday, from the water Sunday afternoon. Just after 12:30 p.m., divers located and recovered the body Rhonda Tibbs near Park Marina on Lake Allatoona. Tibbs, who officials say was from Smyrna, was last seen at around...
Toddler drowns in family pool
Toddler drowns in family pool

Family members on Sunday are mourning the death of a 3-year-old girl who drowned in a private swimming pool in Cartersville, police said.  “The incident appears to be a tragic accident,” Cartersville police spokesman Lt. M.E. Bettikofer said.  A 911 call was made from the Waterford Drive home when the toddler was found in the...
Study: Dads’ brains respond differently to daughters than sons
Study: Dads’ brains respond differently to daughters than sons

Fathers with toddler daughters are more attentive and responsive to their needs than fathers with toddler sons, according to a study published in an American Psychological Association journal. >> Read more trending news  Behavorial Neuroscience journal. Fathers of young boys engaged in more rough-and-tumble play and used more achievement-related...
Downed tree causes damage in Midtown
Downed tree causes damage in Midtown

Today: Scattered thunderstorms this morning, then cloudy skies this afternoon. A few storms may be severe. High 86 Tonight: Scattered thunderstorms early, then cloudy skies after midnight. Low 68 Tomorrow: Mostly cloudy in the morning with scattered thunderstorms developing later in the day. A few storms may be severe. High 83  ...
More Stories