What you don't know can't only harm you. It can cost you thousands of dollars. Volunteer attorneys with Legal Aid of East Tennessee are offering some help.
When parents ordered to pay child support lose their job or take a lower-paying job, they still owe the money they are ordered to pay.
"People don't know the laws," Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw said Friday. "They don't know it still accrues."
Then parents get called into court.
"What we see are mostly men, sometimes as young as their early 30s who have a $30,000 to $40,000 arrearage that's accruing at a 12 percent interest rate," Philyaw said. "That's insurmountable. They're never going to clear it unless they hit the lottery."
To answer questions and help people with child support concerns file appropriate paperwork, 12 lawyers with Legal Aid of East Tennessee will volunteer at the 1600 E. Third St. office of Hamilton County Juvenile Court beginning on Dec. 12.
It's the first time the local Legal Aid office has done work in juvenile court.
"This is designed to be a place where someone can go and speak with an attorney and get advice," said Charlie McDaniel, head of Legal Aid's pro bono program. "It's really broadening what we offer."
The organization has staff attorneys and lawyers who volunteer to assist people who can't afford an attorney in certain civil situations.
McDaniel said the gap in legal advice in these cases was brought to their office's attention by the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Clerk's office and Philyaw.
Over his first year as juvenile judge judge, Philyaw has already seen parents who just give up and pay just enough to keep themselves out of jail.
"That doesn't help them. That doesn't help the child," he said.
People who are suddenly unemployed or underemployed often don't know that they can avoid mounting debt by applying for a modification in their child support payment. A judge has to rule on the application and ensure the request is valid, but if approved, the modification could make what they're paying more manageable.
"I think for the most part people want to live up to their responsibilities but the unknown is scary," Philyaw said.
Philyaw oversees three full-time magistrates who hear only child support and paternity cases. If their decisions are appealed, the petitioner gets a re-hearing before Philyaw.
The plan is to continue the child support clinics monthly, McDaniel said.
"We want it to be ongoing and sustainable," McDaniel said. "There's a systemic problem. Let's solve it."
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP