A parental accountability court is expected to launch its first class this summer under the leadership of Floyd County Superior Court Judge Kay Ann Wetherington.
It’s a voluntary alternate sentencing option for noncustodial parents who are behind in their child support payments and face sanctions including incarceration.
“We have a lot of people in that category. It doesn’t make sense to suspend their drivers license or put them in jail. It sets them back,” said coordinator Jessica Ferguson, who’s assigned to Wetherington from the Georgia Department of Human Services.
Ferguson has been on the job about five weeks, gathering information about local resources, setting up an office and talking with potential participants.
She still has a training course on child support payments to complete. But she expects to meet with Wetherington next week to firm up the details and start date.
Ferguson said the court program runs a minimum of 12 months. The first move is to send them for a mental health assessment, and the child or children must be legitimized. Ferguson can point them in the right direction for legal documentation.
However, her main focus is to determine why the person isn’t making child support payments and address that. Participants can get help with mental health, substance abuse, housing, employment, clothing, education — if they’re willing to commit.
“Some people call it hand-holding, but I’m OK with that,” Ferguson said. “The court’s goal is to make sure they pay their support, but my goal is to make them want to be involved in their child’s life as much as possible.”
Ferguson said she expects to start with about 15 to 20 participants because it’s an intensive course. There are monthly check-ins with the judge but she’ll be monitoring their progress on all assignments.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Ferguson said. “You never know what their barriers (to payment) are. They may have multiple barriers.”
If the person needs a job, they’ll have to apply at the Georgia Department of Labor, she said. If there are gaps in their work history or they’ve never had a job, they’ll volunteer at local nonprofits like the Community Kitchen.
“We call that workforce development and they can put that on their resume,” she said.
It’s open to men and women, Ferguson said, and could even include both parents if the child is in custody of the state.
A participant whose driver’s license is suspended for nonpayment of child support would get it back for the program, and warrants would be suspended. That’s if they seem to be a good candidate.
“This is a voluntary program,” she emphasized. “You can leave at any time but there are consequences. Everything suspended is reinstated.”
The Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living hosted Ferguson this week as its Access Collaborative session guest speaker. The director, Maia Santamaria, offered their assistance and commended the plans.
“It’s good to have these programs,” Santamaria said. “Before, all the courts could do is punish.”
Participants must make their payments regularly for at least six months before they graduate. Ferguson said they’re also monitored for at least six months after that.