Last spring, Mark Williams was $8,000 in the hole, way behind on child support payments for his two children.
He’d served five years in prison for a drug charge and couldn’t pay while behind bars.
The letters kept coming ordering him to appear in court, but the 41-year-old Williams felt like he couldn’t catch up on the debt.
A new Problem Solving Court in Bibb County, though, offered Williams the tools to help pay down what he owed without landing back in jail for non-payment.
The court is aimed at separating the “deadbeat dads from the beat down dads” who want to pay their child support obligations but face barriers that keep them from paying, said Macon Circuit Superior Court Judge Phillip Raymond.
“We are willing to help someone who is willing to help themselves,” he said.
Some participants have nonviolent criminal records, substance abuse problems or a lack of education that makes a job search tough.
Like the circuit’s other alternative courts that offer help to veterans, people suffering from mental health problems and drug addiction, the court partners with community organizations to match participants with the services they need to get on their feet, he said.
The program, launched in April, serves as an unemployed participant’s job.
“They’re required to go to the meetings and go to any appointment set up by the coordinator,” Raymond said.
Participants also are required to look for work.
Raymond said he requires nonworkers to pay 15 percent of their obligation. If they don’t pay, he orders them to perform community service hours equal to the number of hours they’d have to work at a minimum wage job to make what’s owed. For example, $7.25 equals one hour of community service.
Participants who don’t follow the court’s program are kicked out to make room for people who want help, Raymond said.
Forty-nine people have started the program and 18 have been removed since the court began. People removed are subject to a contempt hearing and a possible jail sentence.
Although participants can stay in the program for a year, they’re eligible for graduation after getting a job and paying their full child support obligation for six consecutive months.
Williams and three other men graduated Friday in a ceremony at the Bibb County Courthouse.
‘Ain’t nothing they gonna do to me’
Williams said the court got him bus passes to help him get to his job at Margarita’s on Montpelier Avenue.
Since spring, he has been promoted from dishwasher to a management position, upping his pay from $7.50 an hour to $10.50.
Counseling offered by the program offered the motivation Williams said he needed.
“I wanted to knock the debt down and make sure my kids are OK.”
While in the program, Williams said he paid down his balance to $3,400.
Since its inception 10 months ago, court participants have paid $21,084, said Steven Giglio, Problem Solving Court coordinator. More than half that amount was paid by the four men who graduated Friday.
Shawn Robinson, 35, had been in the Bibb County jail four months for not paying child support when he entered the program.
He hadn’t made a voluntary payment, Giglio said.
When offered the opportunity to join the Problem Solving Court, Robinson said he was tired of being in jail.
“I had it in my head ‘I’m not going to pay my child support. There ain’t nothing they gonna do to me.’ I found out the hard way,” Robinson said during Friday’s graduation.
The program helped Robinson get his driver’s license reinstated and to arrange job interviews.
After two weeks he was hired as a service technician at Raffield Tire Master.
Another program graduate, 24-year-old Matthew Marshall, said he was on the verge of incarceration when he entered the Problem Solving Court.
Like Robinson, Marshall got his driver’s license reinstated and went to job interviews with the program’s help.
Soon, he got a job as a cook at the Hilton Garden Inn.
“This court has been a good support system for me. It makes me want to go and work harder and makes me want to push for higher goals and be a better father,” he said during the graduation.
The program, while working with Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council, helped 34-year-old Antonio Parker find an unpaid internship at Marshall’s that later turned into a full-time job, Giglio said.
“It’s made me a better person and a better leader,” Parker said.
While working and making his child support payments, Parker has been attending school. He is set to graduate in June with an associate’s degree in information technology. The program has worked with him to find a paid internship in that field that may turn into a job, Giglio said.
“I can start my career in Florida and hopefully be a better father than I am today,” Parker said.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.