By: Erin Hollenkamp
In Atlanta, Ga., Frank Hatley, age 50, is enjoying his life out of jail. He spent 13 months behind bars as a penalty for not paying child support to support his son, and unfortunately, no one believed Hatley when he insisted he was not the father.
CNN.com outlines the particulars of the case, which Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights called a "monumental lapse in judgment" by the state of Georgia.
In 1986, Hatley was in a relationship with Essie Lee Morrison, who subsequently gave birth to a son. According to court documents, Morrison told Hatley that he was the father. The couple soon ended their relationship.
When the child turned 2, his mother applied for public aid. This is where Hatley re-entered the picture. According to state law in Georgia, the government can recoup the cost of such aid from a child’s noncustodial parent.
Hatley went along with Morrison’s assurances for 13 years, until learning in 2000 that the child might not be his son. A paternity test confirmed it. Hatley returned to court and was relieved of any future child support payments but, almost incredibly, was kept on the hook for $16,000 he owed the state from prior to the new ruling.
Even more incredibly, Hatley had worked on compliance, paying down $6,000 of the debt. At one point in 2006 he was jailed for nonpayment, during a period where he was unemployed, but upon his release he began making additional payments. Hatley continued to make payments even after losing another job in 2008 and becoming homeless.
When he finally ran out of money and ceased making payments, a judge ordered him jailed for 13 months.
According to an attorney who represented him in 2000, the state believed Hatley was liable for the back payments because he signed a consent agreement with the Office of Child Support Services.
His attorney, Latesha Bradley, stated that Hatley had indeed signed such an agreement—at a time when he understood the child to be his own. The court agreed with the state that Hatley had to comply with the consent agreement for the period he believed the child was his son.
Cook County Sheriff Johnny Daughtrey, who presides over the county involved in the case, had his doubts after Hatley's incarceration.
"I knew the gentleman's plight and didn't know how to help him," Daughtrey says.
When the Southern Center for Human Rights visited his jail early in 2009, Daughtrey connected the two parties.
Two weeks ago, Cook County Superior Court Judge Dane Perkins signed an order stating that Hatley "is no longer responsible for paying any amount of child support," a ruling which orders the Office of Child Support to close his file.
The Georgia Department of Human Services plans to propose legislation that would close the apparent loophole Hatley fell through in this situation, said Dena Smith, a spokesperson for the agency.
Still to be done: a child support hold still sits on Hatley’s driver’s license and income tax. And so far, the state has not come forward to offer to reimburse Hatley for the $6,000 in payments he has made since 2000. In Frank Hatley’s case, patience certainly is a virtue.