by Ross Brockway of the Georgia Justice Project. Artwork by Kim Vanderheiden. Reprinted from The Conscious Lawyer magazine’s special feature of the work by members of PISLAP (Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law and Politics.) If you feel moved by this story, please support the work of the Georgia Justice Project and PISLAP, and sign up to receive The Conscious Lawyer where you’ll find many more articles inspiring and informing us to practice law with awareness and intention.
The Need for Support rather than Punishment
Timothy was in some ways lucky. He was incarcerated for nearly 10 years, but due to his exemplary record, he spent the last year at Metro Reentry Facility, a special facility in Georgia dedicated to preparing incarcerated men for return and readjustment to society. At Metro Reentry, Timothy was able to take job training classes; he had freedom to move around mostly on his own volition; and guards referred to him not as “inmate” but as “returning citizen.” Timothy made good use of the resources available, and his easy demeanor and positive attitude impressed everyone. But as Timothy’s release date approached, he faced an incredibly difficult task. Timothy would leave with over $55,000 in debt, debt which accrued because of his inability to earn money and make child support payments while he was in prison. He therefore recognized the complexity of the problem more deeply than we did when Georgia Justice Project staff first met Timothy at Metro Reentry, because Timothy anticipated not only the typical reentry challenges that most formerly-incarcerated people encounter—including compounding discrimination on the basis of race, class, and criminal records—but also foresaw how legally-imposed child support debt and debt punishments could very likely trap him in poverty and force him back into incarceration.
In the State of Georgia and throughout much of the United States, an out-of-home parent’s inability to earn money and pay child support—whether because of job loss, disability, or incarceration—can quickly become a compounding cycle of punishment and poverty from which escape seems impossible. In Timothy’s case, child support debt triggered an automatic suspension of his driver’s license, which would make finding employment after incarceration even more challenging. Across the U.S., 86% of people drive to work, and many jobs require that a person have a driver’s license as a prerequisite to employment. The vast majority of U.S. towns and cities lack robust public transportation, including in Georgia, so a suspended driver’s license can also make it difficult for parents to access hospitals and doctors’ offices, get nutritious food and fulfill parenting activities for their kids. If one chooses to drive despite the suspended license—which in many cases might be a necessity—she risks getting arrested and charged with Driving with a Suspended License, one of the most frequent criminal charges in the U.S. and a common criminal record employment barrier. Remarkably, U.S. federal law actually requires that states suspend driver’s licenses of parents who are behind on child support; so millions of poor out-of-home parents around the country, like Timothy, must face this challenge.
Timothy would also have to worry about the threat of more incarceration if he found himself unable to pay off his child support debt after his release. Though debtors’ prisons were long ago banned in the U.S. (it was one of the reasons colonists fought the British for political independence), the State of Georgia continues to arrest and jail poor people when they are unable to pay their child support debt. With so many thousands of dollars accrued over his time in prison, on top of the already heightened barriers to employment that await every person newly released from incarceration, Timothy faced an especially high risk of getting locked up again. Unless he could secure income and pay off his debt quickly, he could face a criminal “Child Abandonment” charge or indefinite jail time for a civil “Contempt of Court” judgment.
It is perhaps striking that responses to child support debt are so punitive in Georgia and other U.S. states, given how much we know about the weight of debt on low-income people and the destructive impact of criminal and financial punishments on a person’s ability to climb out of poverty and achieve economic self-sufficiency. And yet, because these punitive responses are justified by the appeal to reasonable goals—the financial care of children and single parents who bear the majority burden of everyday parenting— many people fail to realize that these debt mechanisms hurt poor children and families most of all. Prior to his arrest and prison sentence, Timothy had been a present and caring father, and, as he prepared to leave Metro Reentry, he was eager to reunite with his children and help guide them through the rest of their young lives; he especially wanted to make sure that they didn’t make the same mistakes he had made as a young man. While Timothy and his children’s mother, Patricia, had long ago separated, they had kept in communication and both had their children’s interest as their first priority. In fact, after some struggles in raising the kids on her own, Patricia was hopeful that Timothy would take custody of the children and assume the parenting responsibility that she had shouldered during his incarceration. Rather than seeking back-payment for the child support that Timothy had not paid and could not have paid, Patricia wanted to waive the debt and have him provide support in a more meaningful way—by caring for and raising their two children, something that Timothy also wanted. Unfortunately, however, U.S. law does not allow past-due child support to be waived or reduced, even when the at- home parent or child requests and sincerely wants it.
Thus in nearly every possible way, the law sought to make things worse rather than better for Timothy’s family. It stood ready to destroy Timothy’s ability to provide, and his children’s ability to receive, real parental support; it threatened to separate the family once again, even though they wanted desperately to reunite and work together; and it outright forbade the parents from solving their problems and restoring family relationships on their own.
Unfortunately, the pressure put on Timothy and his family is not unique. While child support agreements and payment processes may often work well enough for families with sufficient resources, for low-income families, particularly families of color like Timothy’s, child support orders are set and enforced in ways that preclude parents’ efforts to creatively work through their challenges and come to common agreement, and that levy destructive punishments when the out-of-home parent struggles and has difficulty fulfilling the financial obligation. Instead of bringing the family together and supporting efforts to rise out of poverty and familial discord, instead of encouraging authentic co-parenting and honoring the myriad contributions that out-of-home parents can provide, U.S. child support law dismantles poor families and helps destroy the health, power, and internal bonds within poor communities of color. Although the U.S. no longer forcibly separates Black and Brown families through slavery and the Black Codes, and no longer rips apart American Indian families through forced migration and kidnapping of Indian children, modern child support debt punishments nonetheless represent an insidious manifestation of the same practice of forcibly removing parents from children, often with similarly tragic results.
At the GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT we seek not only to provide legal services to people who otherwise could not afford a lawyer, but also to create and demonstrate a new and different way of legally supporting poor families and communities. Recognizing what is made plain through the U.S. child support system—that law so frequently works to enforce existing social and racial hierarchies, and to destroy, rather than restore, human bonds—we at the Georgia Justice Project provide assistance to our clients that goes beyond the formal acts of legal representation by also addressing clients’ social and economic needs, from employment barriers and housing insecurity to addiction issues and mental health concerns. Furthermore, we form deep relationships with our clients and their families, such that we become lifelong friends and partners, rather than simply lawyers and clients. At the Georgia Justice Project, the relationships we form allow us to work in solidarity, standing arm-in-arm with clients as they face what are often the most trying challenges they have ever faced—their biggest demons and most frightening threats. And we maintain those relationships and that support long after our legal representation in the particular case has ended.
In addressing child support debt punishments, we bring our holistic services to bear to help out-of-home parent clients, many of whom are incarcerated or have criminal records, to get jobs and deal with other legal and socioeconomic problems they may face. We use the relationships we build with clients to also get to know their children, family members, and in some cases even the in-home parent whom the legal system would label and separate as the “opposing party.” With trust and connections built independently and authentically, we approach each case in creative ways that seek to solve problems and restore co-parenting relationships, rather than simply achieve a “win” for our client over the other parent.
In Timothy’s case, we were able to get to know his ex-partner, Patricia, and found that what she most wanted was for Timothy to take on the burden of physically and emotionally raising their children. With her involvement, we drafted a consent agreement, which the judge signed, to end child support payments, stop enforcement of past-due debt, and transfer custody of the children from Patricia to Timothy. We advocated with the child support service agency to reinstate Timothy’s driver’s license so he could travel to work and transport his kids. A social worker from the Georgia Justice Project helped him find a full-time job so he could begin supporting his family. Though Timothy still left prison with thousands of dollars in child support debt and a difficult journey ahead, he would not have to face the foreboding, near-immediate threat of jail and other punishments because of that debt. And he would not have to face the uncertainty and challenges of his future alone.
As time has gone on, not everything has turned easy and happy for Timothy and his family. While he continues to work, his teenage daughter has had problems with school and has herself encountered punishment through the criminal legal system. That is how it goes for so many low-income families of color in the U.S., that even after overcoming one challenge another appears around the corner. But Timothy is now part of the Georgia Justice Project family; we keep up with him, and he drops by our office to check in and say hello. We will continue to stand by Timothy, and his family, as they face the ongoing obstacles of life and reentry. Ultimately, in the face of a legal system that dehumanizes and divides poor families and communities of color, it will take continuous solidarity, friendship, and even love—much more than what a lawyer typically provides—to bring about individual and community restoration.
This art piece was created by Kim Vanderheiden as part of the Tenderly Project, which is a contemplative meditation on the sacred beauty of each being. (Not all subjects of the project will be people.) Each poster features a representation of someone, along with the word “Tenderly,” interacting with a thick, jumbled dangle of plants and flowers representing the chaotic, exuberant, too-much-to-comprehend fullness of life. The artist’s social intention is through sharing the work, to nurture a collective awareness of holding that being, as well as others with shared experiences, tenderly in our thoughts, behaviors, laws, programs, and institutions, as a necessary component of supporting justice and peace in our world.