How COVID-19 Lays the Groundwork for Child Support Debtor’s Prisons

/ Blog Post

By Ross Brockway, 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Georgia Justice Project. Ross’s Fellowship is supported by FordHarrison LLP and Greenberg Traurig, LLP.

Photo of Ross Brockway
Photo of Ross Brockway

Imagine you’re one of my clients: You’ve been ordered by a court to pay almost $10,000, some of which is child support debt but much of which consists of attorney fees owed to the private lawyer that brought a contempt-of-court action against you. You have a hearing on that contempt action in a week, and if you don’t pay the court-ordered amount by then, the judge has declared that you will be arrested and jailed indefinitely. Unfortunately, you don’t have anywhere near $10,000, and neither does your family. You’ve fallen behind on child support payments after getting injured and losing a part-time job. And, now, you’ve been laid off from your second part-time job due to COVID-19. You’re gripped by fear and asking yourself: Am I going to be locked in jail just because I’m poor?

While it’s critical that children get adequate amounts of financial support to meet their needs, many courts set child support orders without serious consideration of parents’ employment barriers or disabilities. Therefore, child support is often far beyond a low-income parent’s ability to pay.

In Georgia, laws have been enacted that mandate and coerce child support payments without exception and by any means necessary, including driver’s license suspension and jail. Courts rarely consider how physical and economic punishments might affect a parent’s ability to provide long-term financial, emotional, and psychological support.

When the coronavirus crisis hit, the federal government decided to provide emergency assistance to help individuals and families navigate lay-offs, income loss, housing payments, and student loan debt. But what did policymakers make the one major exception to eligibility for stimulus relief under the CARES Act? Past-due child support debt.

The people most in need of support during COVID-19 are poor and marginalized individuals—those with unstable employment, criminal records, disabilities, and health concerns—and so parents in these situations will especially suffer from COVID relief being withheld from them. But just as wrong and even more frustrating: this withholding will drastically harm low-income children.

Helping a parent sustain housing, nutrition, and the ability to work puts them in a better position to pay child support and be a more engaged parent. Conversely, taking away a parent’s health, housing, livelihood, and ability to recover from COVID-19—both the disease and economic pain—deprives that parent’s children of what they need. We know instability pushes people deeper into poverty, and that financial penalties and incarceration reduce peoples’ ability to climb out of poverty. In a time of unprecedented economic and public health instability, it doesn’t make sense to bring more uncertainty to struggling parents and children.

Taking away a parent's health, housing, livelihood, and ability to recover from COVID-19—both the disease and economic pain—deprives that parent's children of what they need.

Ross Brockway /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

At my host organization, the Georgia Justice Project, I advocate for clients facing child support debt punishments, including contempt actions and driver’s license suspensions. We also assist parents with modification petitions, legal actions that seek to make child support amounts account for loss of employment, disability, or other involuntary drop in income.

Unfortunately, pandemic closures and court delays have made these efforts slower and more complicated than usual. Beyond that, the vast majority of low-income parents have no access to legal representation, so overcoming child support debt and debt punishments can seem impossible.

For people like my clients, and countless other low-income parents who owe child support, the COVID-19 crisis has created an increasingly threatening, seemingly inescapable situation.

Debt doesn’t forgive (nor can it be forgiven in Georgia). And debt punishments—even if temporarily halted—will be waiting for them when courts and government processes begin again.

Ultimately, what is desperately needed to help families heal and achieve long-term stability is policy change. And that will require us all to reshape and deepen our thinking about child support.

To learn more about Ross’s Fellowship project, visit his profile.

Debt doesn't forgive (nor can it be forgiven in Georgia).

Ross Brockway /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow