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Towaliga Judicial Circuit Parental Accountability Court program offers help, hope

The Towaliga Judicial Circuit has joined more than a dozen other Georgia court systems that offer a way to help keep nonpaying noncustodial parents in a job and out of jail.

On Tuesday, Aug. 20, a kickoff was held at the Butts County Courthouse for the Butts County Parental Accountability Court, which is administered by the Division of Child Support Services of the Georgia Department of Human Services.

Parental accountability court, also called problem-solving court, is viewed as an alternative to incarceration.

Since the program began April 1 in Butts County, nine noncustodial parents who were in contempt for not paying child support have volunteered to participate in the program. Each of them was either about to face jail time or was already in jail.

Although the Towaliga Judicial Circuit serves Butts, Monroe and Lamar counties, the program for now is just focusing on people who have had court orders filed in Butts County, said Towaliga Judicial Circuit Child Support Services Manager Jenny Kelly.

The nine participants went before Superior Court Judge William Fears on Aug. 20 to provide updates regarding job searches, child support payments and educational pursuits.

In addition to finding and keeping a job and paying child support on time, participants are required to see Fears once a month and to visit, or in some cases call, Parental Accountability Court Coordinator Laura Mulkey once a week.

If a program participant fails to check in with Mulkey each week, they can be sent to the Butts County Sheriff’s Office jail.

Part of Mulkey’s job is to determine why noncustodial parents are unable to pay child support. A large percentage of the participants told Fears they did not have a driver’s license, which can limit a job search and the ability to keep a job.

One program participant just started GED classes at Southern Crescent Technical College. Several participants reported that they had either found jobs or were scheduled to have job interviews.

In addition to education and employment opportunities, Butts County Parental Accountability Court provides participants connections with community resources that provide substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling services, parenting skills and job-interview tips.

The kickoff event for the program allowed those same community partners in education, employment, mental health and substance abuse prevention to sit in court during the monthly check-in with the judge and to see firsthand how the program works.

“You’ve made a lot of progress. I’m proud of what you have done,” Fears told one program participant, who had secured a job interview and had tested negative for substance abuse.

If a participant pays the full court-ordered amount in child support for six months, they graduate from the program and go back to the traditional method of paying child support, said Division of Child Support Services Director Tanguler Gray-Johnson.

Parental accountability court started in the Coweta Judicial Circuit in October 2009. Statewide, there are currently 13 out of 49 court systems participating in the program and four working to put the program in place.

The goal is to have 26 court systems participating in the program by 2016, said Gray-Johnson.

By helping participants reduce or avoid jail time, the program has saved taxpayers more than $4.5 million statewide, according to information presented at the court’s kickoff program. It has also helped provide more than $545,000 in child-support payments.

“We’re starting to see our numbers come up,” said Fears, later adding, “But it’s not about collecting money. It’s about helping children.”

The program will be limited to 15 participants in Butts County, Kelly said.

In the short period of time parental accountability court has been available in Butts County, Mulkey has already seen positive results and impacts on participants’ lives.

“To me, seeing people have some small successes and then build on those successes is such an amazing thing,” Mulkey said.