MARIETTA — Surrounded by family members, judges and Gov. Brian Kemp in a packed courtroom, five Cobb parents became the first to graduate from the county’s newest accountability court Tuesday afternoon.
The Parental Accountability Court, a partnership between the Superior Court of Cobb County and the state Department of Human Services, exists to teach chronic non-payers of child support to be responsible and financially self-sufficient, according to presiding Judge Ann Harris.
Stanley Ezzard, Garrett Jorgensen, Sonya Henderson and Ferris Long received their certificates of completion from Kemp, who told them the state and their community were proud of their ability to get back on their feet and stay determined. Jemutai Karen Kirui was also recognized for graduating but was not able to attend the ceremony.
“That child that you’re now supporting needed you,” said Kemp, a father of three girls. “And I know you’re proud of being able to support them. That’s the right thing to do.”
All too often, Harris said, non-payers of child support struggle with drug or alcohol addiction, mental health issues and other barriers to a healthy life.
Harris said when the offenders are ordered to pay and can’t, they can be held in contempt of court and jailed. When the program was being considered in late 2016, she said the local child support office managed more than 8,000 cases, and about 300 parents were found to have been jailed for not paying child support or had an outstanding order to be jailed.
The accountability court, she said, is meant to break that cycle.
Like the county’s three other accountability courts, Harris said the parental court doesn’t do the work for the parents.
The court provides services like literacy training and education, mentoring, employment assistance/placement and job skills training, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment, Harris said. She said those services help to address what are often the underlying causes of non-payment.
“We’re not giving them fish. We’re teaching them how to fish,” Harris said. “We’re not giving them a handout. We’re giving them a hand up, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Ezzard, who works at Ken’s Corner Grill at the corner of Atlanta Road and Church Street in Smyrna, said before he really stuck to the program, he’d been in and out of jail because of his inability to pay and his struggle with drinking.
Judge Harris said Ezzard’s alcohol abuse even got him kicked out of the program in late 2017. He was living in a house then that had no power or running water, she said. But when he rejoined in September the following year, Harris said he told the court he’d “make us proud.”
“He said he was determined to graduate, and he is here today,” Harris said. “He has been well over six months, every month of paying his child support in the amount required at the time required.”
The county has four accountability courts, according to the Superior Court website: drug treatment, mental health, veterans treatment and parent.
In order to be eligible, an applicant for the parental court must have no history of violent felonies, have six or more months of unpaid child support, have been chronically unemployed and/or missing multiple support payments, and have pending or current contempt action or driver’s license suspension.
To graduate from the program, participating parents must demonstrate at least six consecutive months of full compliance with their child-support obligation.
In fiscal year 2019 alone, parental court participants in Georgia paid more than $1.6 million in child support that had not previously been paid, according to Harris. Since 2012, she said, the program statewide has helped 6,200 parents avoid incarceration.