In 2010, Denise Arnesen and her 4-year-old daughter were homeless.
After Arnesen left what she said was an abusive relationship, the pair was sleeping outside a thrift store on South Cobb Drive when police came and took her child.
Arnesen’s brother and his wife agreed to take in her daughter and a judge ordered Arnesen to pay child support, which she did for a few years until she lost her job working at Goodwill. The 36-year-old was arrested in June 2017 after not making child support payments for about two years, and a judge said she owed nearly $11,000 in back child support and court fees, money she didn’t have.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t pay child support because I’m not working, but they won’t let me out to work so that I can make money,” she said. “How can you pay if you’re locked up?”
After a month in jail, Arnesen said she learned about the Parental Accountability Court program that helped get her on her feet. Program officials negotiated with the judge to lower the amount Arnesen needed to pay to be released to something she could afford.
Through the program, Arnesen began working with WorkSource Cobb, a nonprofit that encouraged her to speak with her former supervisors to get her job back at Goodwill, and it is helping her find housing and better-paying employment. Since January, she’s made monthly child support payments in full — at $291 — as well as paying an additional $50 toward the payments she missed.
The Department of Human Services partners with the state’s Superior Courts to run the parental accountability courts as an alternative to jailing chronic nonpayers of child support.
“The program specifically hones in on what the root causes of nonpayment are with child support,” said Wende Parker, Parental Accountability Court program manager.
Most of the parents who are chronically unable to pay child support are poor and either unemployed or underemployed, Parker said. Some, such as Arnesen, are dealing with mental health issues or addiction. She is being treated for bipolar disorder.
Judges in 42 of the state’s 49 judicial circuits are operating parental accountability courts.
If a district has such an accountability court, a judge can order the parent who is behind on payments to go through the program to get him or her on track. Many parents who learn about the program, such as Arnesen, will ask whether they can take part.
The program, which was launched in 2009 with Coweta Judicial Circuit Judge John Simpson, has helped give thousands of parents the tools to get on a path to regularly paying child support.
Since 2012, Parker said more than 6,000 people have avoided jail and about $6.6 million in child support has gone toward the care of about 9,400 children. Most parents in the program are men, but there are some women participating as well.
Child support payments have increased 79 percent when a parent participates in the accountability court, according to a Judicial Council of Georgia study released in 2018.
The department aims to have judges in each of the state’s judicial districts by the end of 2020.
In 2018, Georgia parents were ordered to pay about $942 million in child support, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Of the amount owed, nearly $1.2 million of the $566 million in child support collected was paid by parents in the accountability program.
“The key to the success we’ve had has been simply individualizing the cases and not rushing them through like cattle,” Simpson said. “Parents respond, many times, to just being treated civilly for the first time.”
Under the program, parents are assigned a coordinator who identifies a parent’s needs and helps work to meet them. A parent, for example, might need a GED, substance abuse treatment or literacy training.
With her coordinator’s guidance, Arnesen went back to work and is living with her mother and sister in Sandy Springs until she can find a place of her own. She splits custody of her four teenage children with their father and, long term, said she hopes to regain custody of her youngest child.
Looking back, Arnesen said, she believes she was in the midst of a psychotic breakdown when she was homeless. She said she is thankful that her four teenage children could stay with their father while she was sleeping on the streets.
Parents typically participate in the program for 12 to 18 months, Parental Accountability Court supervisor Shannon Longino said.
“The meetings are focused on the barriers that we’ve identified,” Longino said. “If the barrier is they have an eighth-grade education, the next week they come we have them meet somewhere like the Perry Learning Center where they have a GED program.”
The center offers adult education in Jonesboro.
Parents are required to meet at least once a month with a Superior Court judge to discuss their progress. Participants can’t “graduate” from the program until they’ve made child support payments in full for at least six months, but it is up to the discretion of the judge. Arnesen is hoping to graduate from the program by the middle of next year.
If a parent misses a payment, the judge typically issues a verbal warning and might increase the number of times the parent is required to meet with a caseworker, Simpson said. If they miss several payments, they’re removed from the program and the Department of Child Support Recovery can issue a warrant for contempt, starting the whole process over again.
“This is a holistic approach to meeting the needs of a family unit,” Parker said. “These individuals become not only accountable to the judge, but they are accountable to themselves.”
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