Orange County chases mom into bankruptcy and beyond to pay for son's juvenile detention
Sad and worried Hispanic woman (Shutterstock)

A federal court scolded a California probation department for hounding a mother into bankruptcy -- and beyond -- to pay more than $16,000 she owed for incarcerating her son in a juvenile detention facility.

Maria Rivera sold her home and filed for bankruptcy trying to repay $23.90 in daily detention fees, which is allowed but not mandated by the state, and another $2,200 in legal expenses, reported the Orange County Register.

She paid $9,508 to Orange County in May 2010 after selling her home, but the county jacked up the remaining $6,864 she owed to $9,905 -- which the county's attorney couldn't explain and a federal judge slammed as "highly questionable."

Rivera filed for bankruptcy in September 2011 and was given a "fresh start" from her debts about four months later.

A federal appeals court ruled last week that Rivera did not have to repay the remaining money she owed to the county, which had jailed her then-teenage son for more than a year between 2008 and 2010, the newspaper reported.

It's not clear what charges her son was held on because his juvenile records are sealed.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt admonished the Orange County Probation Department in his Aug. 10 ruling, which was issued by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Seeking to obtain that revenue by unremittingly pursuing legal actions against disadvantaged individuals – the counterproductive practice at issue here – can have damaging effects on the community,” the appeals court judge added.

Rivera said the probation department threatened to take away her driver's license or pursue her in court, so she finally reopened her bankruptcy case and asked the court to sanction the county.

A bankruptcy judge ruled last year in the county's favor, saying state law allowed government agencies to pursue debts for alimony and child-support payments through bankruptcy, but the appeals court overturned that ruling.

Reinhardt said the state law was misapplied because Rivera's son was taken into custody as punishment and not to provide "a wholesome upbringing," and impeded the mother's ability to provide her son with future support.

Orange County will not appeal the ruling, saying it would not apply to many other cases.