Newton County is kicking off a program that has become a popular alternative to jail for Georgia parents who are behind on their child support responsibilities.
Parental accountability court, or problem solving court, allows certain non-custodial parents who are behind in their child-support payments an opportunity to learn how not to become chronic non-payers of child support, by helping them learn to solve the problems that prevent many from paying in the first place: unemployment, under-employment, drug problems, a lack of education, etc.
Using resources available within the county, the local court system and Georgia's Child Support Services are hoping to address the problems and work on making sure the children, and their parents, do what's best.
"It seeks to remove underlying issues or barriers that cause non-custodial parents from becoming chronic non-payers of child support and it provides an alternative to incarceration," said Richard Kringer, a problem solver with the Georgia Division of Child Support Services. "The aim is to make sure the child is taken care of. That is our main goal."
But the program isn't open to just anyone. There are currently eight participants in Newton County, five of whom are currently in jail. It is a voluntary program, and open to men and women who are non-custodial parents. They cannot be violent offenders nor have pending criminal charges against them. What participants must have is an open case or pending arrest, or be in jail, for contempt of non-payment of child support.
Participants will engage in orientation which is geared toward their specific needs. Some may need a GED in order to get employment; others may have issues which need to be addressed in order for them to remedy the issue that is causing them to not pay for their children. But in orientation, skills are looked at: if the person is employed or under-employed, if they have their diploma or GED, and a plan is made from there. Locally, the program has partnered with Georgia Piedmont College for those who need GEDs, employment agencies in Newton and Rockdale counties, many businesses and some private agencies which can work on parenting skills with the participants.
In Georgia, non-payment of child support has reached massive highs. According to a report from the Department of Human Services, four out of every 10 parents paying child support are delinquent. This could easily end in jail time, which costs roughly $1,500 a month. A typical stay for non-payment of child support is three months. While in jail they cannot pay, causing their arrears to increase, and if they cannot find a job once they are released, they'll be sent back to jail once again.
The DHR reported that Hall County showed potential for the program in their inaugural year of participation, with child support payments growing by $45,000 and the cost of incarceration for non-payment failing by $178,000.
"My job is to put them up under my wing, because some people want to turn things around," said Kringer. "One of the ways to do that is to get them out of linear thinking, for example, thinking ‘I need to get a job so I can pay child support.' We need to change that to them thinking they need to get a job to provide for their child and to improve themselves and their life. Some people want to change and they want out of the cycle. It's our job to help them do that."