Oswaldo Vincente spent seven months in jail when he failed to pay more than $4,000 in child support for his 3-year-old son.
The 42-year-old carpet factory worker, who speaks limited English, lost his job in 2011 after he was arrested the first time on contempt-of-court charges. Three months later, when he couldn't pay his debts, he was thrown back in jail.
Vincente's case isn't unique.
When a Fulton County, Ga., judge decided to certify a class action lawsuit challenging how child support is collected, he used Vincente's experience with the courts in his ruling.
The Southern Center for Human Rights filed the suit against Georgia. The suit challenges the practice of providing counsel for the custodial parent but not the parent who is behind in child support when he or she is taken to court for civil contempt — the usual charge in child support cases — and faces jail time.
Failure to pay child support is a problem that has reached gargantuan proportions. By 2010, the amount of back child support owed by parents nationwide totaled $110 billion. In Georgia alone, noncustodial parents owed $187 million in 2010, while those in Tennessee owed nearly $167 million, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
From 2010 to 2011 at least 3,500 indigent parents in Georgia were jailed for failure to pay child support without having a lawyer to defend their cases, said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Advocates and corrections experts argue that jailing offenders isn't the answer because it costs the government money and keeps the parents from working and making child support payments.
Having representation could have prevented many of those jailings and resulted in more child support payments being made, Geraghty said.
Moreover, she said, it is unfair for the state to provide representation for the custodial parent but not the other parent. After all, advocates say, if a parent can't pay down his debts, he can't afford a lawyer, either.
Court administrators argue that jailing a parent is a last resort to force people to pay if they have the money and are being willful.
"They frequently find the money from somewhere," said Whitfield County Judge Cindy Morris. "It's a very effective tool."
Others question how it benefits the child if a parent sits in jail while debt piles up.
Dads or moms who don't pay child support and are wanted by the courts often have their pictures posted on sheriff's office websites under the tag "deadbeat" parents.
On set days in Walker County and Catoosa County, parents facing unpaid child support cases often fill most of the seats in the courtroom. When a name is called, the parent explains to a judge why he or she fell behind on payments.
Parents can have driver's licenses or passports taken away if they can't pay; their wages or unemployment checks can be garnisheed; or, in extreme cases, they can get thrown in jail on contempt of court charges. Often the custodial parent is represented by an attorney contracted with the state Division of Child Support Services.
Among the thousands of parents jailed for failure to pay child support from 2010 to 2011, Geraghty said some had mental illnesses while others weren't fluent in English and had trouble understanding what was going on from a legal standpoint.
In one case, a 21-year-old pregnant woman was jailed until two weeks before she gave birth. Some of the parents sat in jail for months before they were able to negotiate a lower catch-up payment.
"It's fundamentally unfair to force an indigent parent to beg for his liberty up against an experienced and trained attorney general paid for by the state," Geraghty said.
But some judges said they consider parents' financial resources and their mental status before ordering them to jail.
"Every case is judged upon its own merit," Morris said.
In her court, she said, she keeps a list of every parent she sends to jail for contempt of court. She will bring them back and ask if they have found the means to pay. She doesn't let anyone languish in jail for months, she said.
Others disagree with the idea of jailing parents at all.
One delinquent father spent a year and two months in the Walker County Jail in LaFayette, Ga., costing the county about $15,000 to house him — more than he owed for child support.
Jail Administrator Capt. Dewayne Steele finally went to a judge and petitioned for the man's release.
"It was someone that just kind of slipped through the cracks," Steele said.
Steele would prefer that courts use ankle monitors on people who owe child support. Those would cost about $10 a day, compared to $40 to $50 for jail, he said.
"I'm not an advocate for people who don't pay their child support," he said. "But putting them in jail, it doesn't make sense."
In Chattanooga, the First Things First organization has founded a program that keeps dads out of jail by teaching them life skills and how to care for their kids.
Since "Dads Making a Difference" began 11 months ago, 39 men have graduated from the program, and none has been sent to jail for not paying child support, said the nonprofit's president, Julie Baumgardner.
Teachers in the program say they find that many of the men coming to the class think they are good fathers even though they won't provide for their children. This class teaches them how their actions can hurt their kids, which some of the men have never considered, said Todd Agne, a fathering coordinator.
"You challenge them to be a man," he said.
That's the point that some courts are missing, Baumgardner said — if he has the money, a man can be forced to pay, but not forced to care.
Staff writer Tim Omarzu contributed to this report.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...