"There’s a lot of guys sitting in jail before this program came and they were getting further and further behind,”Smith said of other fathers late with support payments. “If it weren't for this program, I’d probably still be sitting in jail wondering how I was going to get out."
Delinquent child support payments has become a problem statewide. The state Department of Human Services reports about four in 10 non-custodial parents under court order to pay child support aren't paying.
Many of the delinquent parents wind up in jail repeatedly, not because they don't want to pay but because many can't afford it. Tired of the revolving-door problem and the drain on taxes it created, Henry Superior Court Judge Brian Amero looked at parental accountability courts as an option.
Henry County will become the 11th county in the state to establish a parental accountability court when it launches later this month. In Henry, 2,500 contempt cases have been filed since 2008 by the state against non-paying parents. In January, Henry reported 750 cases -- or 28 percent of all its child support cases -- involved a non-custodial parent who was not paying child support.
In child-support cases, the parent can spend up to three months in jail at a cost to taxpayers of $1,500 a month and the nonpayment problem still persists once they're released from jail, Amero said. Many wind up back in jail because underlying problems haven't been addressed.
"The tough fiscal environment has made us ask this question: ‘Is there a good way to spend taxpayers' money in this system?'" said Amero, who will oversee the new court with the help of coordinator Tina Brooks. "We obviously have a need here. I'm really encouraged by this approach."
Parental accountability courts are run by representatives from the state’s Child Support Services division. These coordinators work with the parents, serving as a mentor and directing them to existing community resources. Each court is tailored to its particular county’s need. The coordinators may be called upon to help the unemployed prepare resumes or prep for a job interview. They might refer people to drug rehabilitation programs or other support services. Once those problems are addressed and the person is established in a job, it is up to the individual to make sure the child support is paid or the court has the option to garnishee wages.
"Is the defendant any better at being able to pay?" Amero said. "We're trying to focus on the chronic non-payer. We want to focus on taking their excuses away."
Henry's program will start with six to eight participants and is expected to serve up to three dozen within the next three months. Other counties already using the system are Fulton, Carroll, Coweta, Hall, Gilmer, Fannin, Pickens, Columbia, Richmond and Burke.
Programs already underway have shown tremendous potential. During Hall County court's first year, child support payment from non-custodial parents grew by $45,000. The cost of incarcerating non-paying parents fell by $178,000 as the program helped people find work. Hall has 24 participants.
Over the last four years, Georgia has moved nationally from 47th to 28th in current support payments. "That's a big jump," said Ravae Graham, deputy director of Legislative Affairs and Communications for the Georgia Department of Human Services which oversees the parental accountability courts. Graham said the courts are one of the resources that has contributed to Georgia's improvement in child support collections.
"So far, we believe the program’s been a great success," said James "J.R." Blue, Hall's PAC coordinator. "It shows that individuals with an opportunity to work are then provided with the ability to pay their child support."
One critic of the current child-support system appears open to the PAC concept.
"So long as the focus of the courts is on solving the underlying problem for nonpayment, they would be a welcome improvement from the system we have in many counties now," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.
The Atlanta-based nonprofit law firm sued last month in Fulton County on behalf of six men asking the state to provide lawyers to for delinquent child-support payers. In its lawsuit, the center said the state has a system of “debtors prisons” in which parents who are unable to pay child support are held for weeks, months and even years because they have lost their jobs or are disabled and unable to work.
"People who owe child support need jobs," Geraghty said. "Too often the response to nonpayment is jail. In many cases, especially where the parent has been unable to find work in this slow economy, jail doesn’t really solve the problem."
Henry County is working with companies, the state department of labor and Connect Henry to help non-custodial parents find jobs.
As for the Smiths?
“I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” Michelle Smith said. “Not only am I getting money. I get a break and my kids get a relationship with their dad.”
CHILD SUPPORT IN GEORGIA: BY THE NUMBERS
Amount of Child Support payments distributed in Georgia in the last two years: $1.4 billion
Amount distributed in fiscal year 2011: $708. 3 million.
Cases: 404,000 representing 538,000 children
Parents under Court Order to Pay Child Support through state child support services: 337,000
Percent of non-custodial parents owing child support who are fathers: 91
Percent of non-custodial parents owing child suppport who aren't paying: 40
Source: Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Child Support Services, Fiscal Year 2011