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New law in Texas sends dad to jail despite up-to-date child support payments

By George Chidi
Monday, January 13, 2014 8:00 EDT
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Shocking headlines sent Clifford Hall’s story viral: a father sentenced to six months in jail even after catching up on child support payments.

But Raw Story has learned that a new law may be to blame, and it was the Texas legislature that wanted a case like this to end up with jail time for a dad everyone says is very involved in his child’s life.

Hall, a Houston-area resident, paid nearly $3000 in child support arrearages ahead of a November court date, his attorney Tyesha Elam told Raw Story. The arrearage built up after the court raised his support requirement without notifying his employer, leading to erratic deductions from his paycheck, she said. Opposing counsel demanded a $3500 payment of court fees and attorney’s fees, which she advised him not to pay as excessive, she said. After a contentious court hearing in which Hall nervously walked out of the room twice, he was sentenced to six months for contempt, for missing the payments he had just covered.

The original story by Houston’s Fox affiliate pushes buttons for people concerned about the abuses of the court system. The outrage over a family court story (where the truth is often obscured by competing interests) buried what might be a more important element of the story.

Clifford Hall’s jail sentence is the result of a deliberate act of the Texas legislature, designed to keep deadbeat dads from gaming the system.

That’s not to call Hall a deadbeat dad — far from it. All concerned say that he has been as involved as he could be in the life of his 11-year-old son, given the strained relationship he has with his child’s mother Donna Lane. Hall’s spokesman, Quanell X, leader of the New Black Panther Society and a Houston community activist, noted that Hall split from Lane while she was seven months pregnant, so he could marry another woman. The split left the two embittered, he said.

“We have tried mediation numerous times,” Lane (who identifed herself here as Donna Ferguson) told a Houston-area radio station earlier this week. It hasn’t worked. … He has been involved, and I’ve never had a problem with him being involved. We have never been able to communicate. It’s just that bad.”

A call to Hall has not yet been returned.

But she’s also been in court fighting for child support payments continually since the birth of their son, she said. And Hall has been jailed before for failing to pay child support — hence the wage garnishment.

Since 1995, Texas law prohibited judges from finding someone who owes back child support in contempt for nonpayment if the obligator covered the arrearage before the court hearing. That left custodial parents fighting constantly — and expensively — with payment-evading noncustodial parents who avoided legal consequences by delaying court dates for as long as possible only to get current just before a judge could throw them in jail. It often made the entire process of collection an empty victory, given the out-of-pocket legal costs a petitioner might bear while waiting for the court to award legal fees.

The Texas legislature took a dim view of this situation. In June of 2013, legislators repealed the provision preventing a respondent from being jailed if he or she was paid in full at the time of a hearing, in order to give judges the discretion to punish repeat offenders. The vote in both chambers was unanimous.

Elam says Hall’s jailing is a result of this change. “If Mr. Hall can go to jail, you can go to jail, I can go to jail,” she said. “This is what I’m fighting against.” She added that she is crafting an appeal.

But Hall’s trip to the Harris County Jail in a few days appears to be what the legislature intended.

 
 
 
 
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