Supportive Dad Jailed for Debt to State, Mother and Child on the Street

September 20th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
I don’t think a single case could exemplify the full nuttiness and dsyfunction of the child support system; that’s too big a job for any single cast of characters, but this one sure hits some of the low points (Marshall Tribune, 9/19/12).

It seems that Adrian Hill had a child with April Haley.  They live in Tennessee.  At some point, Haley applied for and received welfare benefits under a program called TennCare which is part of the state’s Medicaid program designed to address the medical needs of the poor and disabled.
 Just what services Haley received, the article doesn’t say, but it’s likely they were for her and Hill’s child.  And, in the strange world of family law, that means Hill had to reimburse the state for its expenditures for his child.  Why Haley didn’t have to do so remains a mystery, but whatever the case, Hill didn’t pay.

Equally strange, the law treats that situation as if Hill had failed to pay child support, and that’s particularly strange in Hill’s case because he and Haley were living together and he seems to have been their sole support.  But under the law, the mere fact that he was doing his part to support his child and its mother, made no difference.  He was obligated to reimburse the state, she wasn’t and that was that.  How Haley was able to qualify for Medicaid also goes unmentioned in the article, which itself is strange since she was getting Hill’s support.  Did she report that as income to her?

So Hill owed Tennessee money for whatever medical care his child had received, and, since he was unable to pay it, the state asked a court to find him in contempt for failure to pay child support.  After a trial by Judge Lee Russell, Hill was found guilty and incarcerated.  But the state had erred in its proceedings against Hill.

Russell found Hill guilty under a law punishing nonsupport with incarceration, but Judge Jeffrey Bivins wrote for the Appeals Court that Russell “erred in construing this statute as a contempt statute,” since it doesn’t include the word contempt…

There was a procedural defect, [Attorney Robert] Dalton said. Hill was charged under a general criminal statute, not the law punishing people for nonsupport.

“As a result, the regular judicial proceedings apply,” including grand jury consideration and a jury trial. “Contempt is a separate issue.”

In other words, the DA charged Hill under the wrong law.  He charged him under a regular criminal statute that requires, well, due process of law.  Since there was no grand jury indictment and no jury trial, Hill was released by order of an appellate court after 183 days in prison.  Had he been charged under the correct law, I suppose he’d still be behind bars.

“It’s time I can’t get back,” said Adrian Bennielle Hill, who spent nearly six months in jail. “It’s not a win for me. It’s a win for anybody who might find themselves in this situation.”

The evil genius behind child support enforcement via incarceration is that it does nothing to get support to the child and in fact makes it harder or even impossible.  That people in prison don’t have jobs is a concept everyone except state legislatures understand.  Of course the threat of prison sometimes makes non-custodial parents pay up, thereby helping to support their children.  But in this case, the child had already received whatever medical treatment was required.  Adrian Hill went to prison, not for failure to support his child – he was doing that.  He went to prison for failure to pay the state, and that resulted in the final Dickensian outrage – Haley and her child went homeless.

Yes, the State of Tennessee, in its zeal to ensure child well-being, tossed a child and its mother onto the street.  If that makes sense to you, explain it to me, because I can’t figure it out.  In fact, I’ll bet that’s one reason Haley begged Judge Russell not to incarcerate Hill.  I suspect she knew what the consequences to her and their child would be if Hill went inside, and she was right.

Although Hill has been released by the appellate court, he can still be retried.  There’s no double jeopardy because he was tried under the wrong law and because his offense continues.  He still hasn’t paid the state and my guess is the amount has increased due to interest, penalties and fees.  The District Attorney is required by law to seek the incarceration of anyone in Hill’s situation who hasn’t paid his debt, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find the man back in prison now that the prosecutor and the judge have been instructed by the appellate court how to do their jobs.

Whatever happens with Hill, his case reminds us of just how verging-on-insanity these laws can be.  To pretend, as the law does, that failure to reimburse the state for services already received by a child is the same as refusing to pay to support one’s child  is nonsense.  Throwing in prison the sole support of a mother and child is truly crazy.  And, needless to say, it has nothing to do with the “best interests of the child.”

Our enthusiasm for punishing fathers for faults real or imagined, outweighs our desire to do what’s best for children.  We prove and re-prove it every day.

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