ATLANTA - After Lance Hendrix returned from military service in 2009, he landed part-time construction work and odd jobs to help pay the child support he owed for his daughter. He managed to pay about $3,800, but when he couldn't afford to pay the rest, a judge threw Hendrix in jail for four months.
The 24-year-old is one of five fathers behind a legal challenge targeting a law that allows judges to put parents in jail if they can't make child support payments. The dads say it perpetuates a disastrous cycle, as the parents wind up losing their jobs, making it harder for them to pay up. The lawsuit aims to force Georgia to provide the parents with attorneys at hearings so they can better defend themselves.
"They're putting people in jail that have no means of even supporting themselves," Hendrix said. "Who's going to want to hire me from jail? 'Hello, my name is Lance Hendrix, and I'm currently an inmate in Cook County Jail. Would you mind hiring me?' Yeah, right."
Imprisoning parents over child support payments has become routine in Georgia. At least 3,500 parents have been jailed in child support cases without being provided attorneys since January 2010, according to court records. In October 2011, 845 parents were jailed in Georgia for child support proceedings.
"We absolutely have a modern day debtor's prison," said Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Atlanta-based organization representing the fathers. "They are forgotten about. And in many instances, the parent is sent to jail, and they're called back into court only when someone remembers that they're there."
The Georgia attorney general's office and the state's Department of Human Services declined comment on the litigation. In court filings, state attorneys said the lawsuit was unnecessary because parents could avoid incarceration by appealing the contempt orders that send them to jail. State attorneys also said locking parents up is a last resort to hold parents accountable.
If the lawsuit prevails, it could bring big changes to Georgia's legal system, forcing the state to set aside potentially millions of dollars to pay for lawyers for the parents. Geraghty said she also hopes it could bring a shift in tactics, prodding the state to garnish the wages of delinquent parents or put liens on their property rather than incarcerate them.
"The problem that we see in Georgia is the state often uses incarceration as a first resort rather than a last resort," she said.
The five fathers cleared a major hurdle recently when a judge granted class-action status, allowing thousands of other indigent parents who were imprisoned to join the lawsuit. The December order, by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, only applies to those who can't afford to pay for an attorney, not those who can hire one but choose not to do so.
The sentences given to the parents - some have spent more than a year in jail - are a result of a quirk in Georgia law. Anyone charged with criminal contempt has the right to an attorney and can only be imprisoned for 20 days. But child support hearings are civil matters, and parents charged with contempt in those cases are often jailed for far longer, without counsel.
Georgia is one of four states that don't require indigent plaintiffs facing jail in child support cases to be appointed attorneys. The state, meanwhile, often has experienced lawyers.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in June holding that indigent parents don't have the right to counsel in a child support hearing where the state wasn't involved . But this lawsuit says there are thousands of cases in Georgia untouched by the ruling because the state represents the other side.
The plaintiffs and the other parents who could join the class-action lawsuit are a diverse group that includes military veterans, immigrants, the homeless and even a pregnant woman.
One is 40-year-old Randy Miller, a veteran of the Iraq war who has paid about $75,000 in child support for his two daughters over the years. He lost his job at AT&T and then lost his home in 2010, and at one point had as little as 39 cents in his bank account.
He was jailed for three months when he was unable to pay his $800 obligation. He was released in February 2011 but still owes money and fears he could be jailed again.
Hendrix is now working odd jobs, helping renovate restaurants and build furniture. He's taken to buying canned foods from discount stores rather than fast food. He relies on help from family to pay some bills.
But it's still not enough to pay the $480 he owes his ex-wife each month for their 5-year-old daughter, so he risks being incarcerated again.
"It's an impossible situation," he said. "And I can't find a job when I'm in jail."