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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”