Parental Accountability Court underscores new approach to child support in Northwest Georgia

Parental Accountability Court underscores new approach to child support in Northwest Georgia

April 27th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham speaks during a trial earlier this month in Ringgold, Ga.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Northwest Georgia's court started a new program to recover more child support payments.

The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit received federal and state funding to create a Parental Accountability Court, in which an employee works with parents who are behind on payments. The court's coordinator meets with the parents frequently over 12 to 18 months, helping them find jobs and making sure they're submitting the money they're supposed to pay.

Circuit Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham said the program should keep parents out of jail and deliver more money to the guardians of children. Right now, the state's Child Support Services Division brings cases against delinquent parents. If the sides don't reach an agreement, the division brings the case to a superior court judge.

The judge can then issue orders, demanding payment or punishing them with incarceration. Graham said the system sets some people up for cycles: fail to pay, go to jail for a month, get out, fail to pay again.

"I don't have a mechanism for following that up," Graham said. "I don't have a means in that 15- to 20-minute [court] hearing to work with that individual."

Jennifer Turley, a former Department of Child Services enforcement agent, has taken the role of the court's coordinator, a job funded with a $37,000 grant. The court started this month in Walker County, Graham said, and will expand to Catoosa, Chattooga and Dade counties by Aug. 1.

Superior Court Judge Brian House will oversee the accountability court in Walker and Catoosa counties, while Graham will oversee it in the others. She said Turley is recruiting employers and other community stakeholders to help with the program.

The program is beginning in Walker County first because it has more delinquent child support cases than the other three counties in the circuit. Around the beginning of the year, Sheriff Steve Wilson said, there were 198 active warrants in the county for contempt of court in which a parent failed to pay child support.

But about four months ago, he said, those warrants were dropped at the order of whoever took them out. He wasn't sure who specifically asked for this. He believes the move's purpose was to clear the table as the circuit starts its new accountability court.

Even before that, though, he said the sheriff's office has made fewer arrests for delinquent child support payments over the last six to eight months, compared to how they used to perform. He said administrators with the Georgia Crime Information Center, a database for law enforcement, ordered police to remove contempt of court for child support out of the listing. That way, when a delinquent parent gets pulled over for, say, speeding, the officer would not know about the arrest warrant.

Wilson believes the purpose of this move was to cut down on the number of people sitting in jails for failing to pay. As of Thursday morning, only two people sat in the Walker County Jail for contempt of civil court, which Wilson said typically means failing to pay child support.

He hopes all the changes taking place are effective.

"By allowing them or giving them some tools to work with," Wilson said, "that will help reduce our jail population, which in turn reduces our cost of housing inmates. ... I think it will probably be a good thing."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.