Last week, msnbc.com ran a lengthy piece examining a very serious problem for parents who fall behind in their child support obligations. With economic insecurity and job loss facing parents nationwide, many non-custodial parents find themselves unable to maintain employment. After missing child support payments, these parents may be brought before a judge and jailed if the judge finds that payments could have been made but the parents refused to do so.
In DC, as in Georgia and most other states, non-custodial parents are not guaranteed an attorney in civil contempt proceedings for failure to pay child support. Without an attorney, non-custodial parents may fail to effectively raise important defenses. While a parent theoretically ought to be sent to jail only when he or she has the ability to pay under a child support order, this is not always the case.
At Legal Aid, we believe that child support orders should be fair and just, and our attorneys help both custodial parents seeking child support and non-custodial parents who may be ordered to make payments.
When one parent is facing the possibility of time behind bars, however, we believe it is particularly important that he or she have access to an attorney and receive the benefit of all the procedural safeguards required by law. In January of this year, we joined other organizations in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize the seriousness of this issue and provide for the right to counsel in civil contempt proceedings. While the Supreme Court did not fully agree with our position, it did conclude that significant protections must be put in place to make sure that any jail sentence is appropriate.
Legal Aid will continue to work to ensure that non-custodial parents’ rights are protected in contempt proceedings.