Child support offers no one-stop fix

Raymond Franklin Thomas is directed by a Deputy to take a seat before Judge Ashley Wright during a child support hearing at the Richmond County Courthouse in Augusta, Ga., Thursday morning August 3, 2017. MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF

Raymond Thomas had just gotten out of prison when he found himself back behind bars, not for a crime but for not paying child support.

 

Thomas, 55, owes more than $76,000 in back child support. Dressed in the bright orange jumpsuit signifying a resident of the Richmond County jail Thomas told a judge Aug. 3 the last time he was in child support court, another judge told him he didn’t have to pay most of the money because a DNA test proved one child wasn’t his.

But only the state of Michigan – where the child lives and receives public assistance – can free Thomas of that financial burden, Richmond County Superior Court Judge Ashley Wright said. Thomas needed to go to Michigan to do that.

“This debt is not going to go away unless you take care of your business,” Wright said.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ children are among 21,761 children helped by the state’s Division of Child Support Services to collect $22.3 million in child support payments and reimbursement for public assistance, according to John Hurst, deputy director of the Division of Child Support Services. The Augusta office covers Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

Statewide, the division has helped collect $740 million for 553,455 children in 2017.

The options a judge has to see to that non-custodial help support their children are “not great,” Wright said. The problem is usually on-going for a number of years for parents who are low-income or on public assistance themselves, she said.

“Children are expensive,” Wright said, adding the older they get, the more expensive they become.

But children don’t get to choose their parents, she said. And they deserve financial support. The best the court can do is to encourage parents to get jobs or help them get jobs.

One avenue is proving successful in Georgia: using parental accountability courts and the fatherhood program.

Since the parental accountability courts started in 2012, almost 4,000 parents have avoided jail and paid for their children’s needs. The courts work to overcome impediments to making child support payments, such as providing education, job assistance, mental health services, substance abuse treatment and mentoring.

In the Augusta area, there are 74 parents enrolled in the Fatherhood Program. The program helps with education, job placement and training, but also resume writing, and referrals to gain visitation with children and legitimization.

Last month, Wright sent several people to apply for the accountability court. Lorenzo Hightower, 40, owes just over $41,000 for three children. After about six weeks in jail, he was out of work with no idea how to pay $850 a month.

Once Hightower gets a job, he’ll know his income and can go back to court to seek a reduction, Wright said. He wants to get a professional driver’s license to increase his chances of getting and keeping a job.

Corey Brooks also wanted to go the accountability court for help in paying off nearly $50,000. After a 2016 accident, he has been unable to work. He has no medical insurance, but he was told he would soon be confined to a wheelchair, Brooks told the judge. He has a GED and can work, Brooks said. “I’m just trying to do the best I can.”

Most of the people Wright has seen in child support court aren’t there because they have money, but refuse to pay for their children. But you have to find out. She had one father who had lost his national security clearance. He can’t get his original job back, but that doesn’t mean he can’t find work in another field, Wright said.

The state has the ability to intercept state and federal tax return refunds, if the child support is in arrears of $500 or more, or $150 if the child is on public assistance, Hurst said.

The state can also sanction a delinquent parent by seeking the suspension of their driver’s license. Although that can be counterproductive to employment, the judge can order reinstatement, Wright said. The reinstatement fee is $35.

Reach Sandy Hodson at sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com or (706) 823-3226

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