Clifford Hall is not a deadbeat dad.
And District Court Judge Lisa Millard, who sentenced him to six months in prison even after he caught up and overpaid on his late child support due to a clerical error, is not a crooked judge.
The problem, insists Hall’s lawyer Tyesha Elam, is the law—more specifically, a law that Texas passed in June 2013 repealing protections for parents paying child support who may fall behind.
“I think that people are not recognizing that we have a local change in the law that allowed this result. People are so desirous of blaming the judge or blaming [Hall] that they’re just not hearing when I say the problem is the law,” Elam told The Root on Friday, during the same week her client turned himself in. “Across the country when people get behind in child support, the desire is for them to purge by making a substantial or total payment. That’s universal, that’s the goal: Pay your child support.
“Here in Texas we had an actual statute passed in 2007 that says if you purge and pay all that you owe, then not only will we take jail off the table, we’ll just pursue other alternatives if you pay up. What happened June 14, 2013, is that protection was repealed, and so our laws legally said that if a person falls behind—and even if they paid up—they can still go to jail, and that’s what I think people are missing,” Elam explained.
“This couldn’t have happened in June 2012. This couldn’t have happened in May 2013, but [Hall’s case] happened November 2013, after the law changed, and so what I’m trying to do is get the word out because I want … federal purging protection,” she continued. “I want the Supreme Court or [Congress] to come down and say everybody has the right to fix [their payment problems]. … In Texas our parents lost that right in June 2013.”
Elam also doesn’t blame the state legislature for its attempt to hold parents accountable who go month after month without making payments until the law starts “jiggling the keys” to take them to jail. In her mind, these types of deadbeat parents were the real targets of the changed law. Elam knows them well and has gone after a few herself. She relates the story of one case in which she was representing a plaintiff, and the defendant purposely quit a job so he wouldn’t have to make payments. Then he was threatened with jail and somehow coughed up thousands of dollars.
“The [Texas] attorney general’s office is getting frustrated. We should be able to incarcerate [these people] because they willfully fell behind … I fully agree. Unfortunately our statute doesn’t protect the person that does not willfully fall behind,” the 42-year-old, who has been licensed to practice law in Texas for more than a decade, added.
“So what you have is his case in black and white in front of a judge. A judge is saying, ‘Hey, here’s a person who fell behind month after month. I don’t care if he paid up; we’re sick of this, sick of these folks falling behind,’” she continued. “My client is just unfortunate that his case fell in the middle of this battle and this change in law. … Why this is happening: The law is allowing it to happen. It’s not a crooked judge. She’s not racist, she’s not hateful, she’s not trying to kill all deadbeats. My client is not some deadbeat manipulating the system, but he unfortunately fell in the court of a judge that’s getting tired of the problem.”
Another issue, Elam noted, probably has to do with a 2010 conviction for late child support payments involving the same child—but for different reasons. At the time, Elam’s client was not working and he did fall behind in those payments. But in the latest case, there was a clerical error involving his employer that landed the Texas father in a world of trouble in 2013. It was discovered that the child support that was supposed to be withheld from his paycheck was taken out only sporadically—in large amounts some weeks but only in small amounts during others, and not at all in other weeks.
Hall didn’t have a problem paying for his then-11-year-old’s needs, and he certainly didn’t want to go to jail, so he coughed up nearly $3,000 to clear his record. During a November 2013 hearing, it was established that he owed nothing, but Judge Millard agreed with his ex’s attorney, saying that he should pay her attorney’s fees. And then it was discovered that he had seen his son on days that weren’t scheduled—he says because of a modification in the agreement that he was never informed about. At the end of it all, Hall was remanded for 180 days.
Elam’s plan is to get the judge to reconsider, given the additional evidence she’s found to support Hall’s claim that there was a withholding error made by his employer. “We have additional evidence to submit to reconsider. That is the goal this coming week,” Elam said. “My grand goal is to actually work to change the law, to either reinstate that protection or to amend the law to allow some kind of grace period. Our laws need to protect our parents who are [the] victims of wage-withholding errors.”
Even a five-day grace period allowing parents to pay and clear their names, she said, would be better than the unfortunate circumstance her client finds himself in.
The other problem is that Elam isn’t optimistic about getting help from the state legislature. “[It’s] really a unique situation because [the original] law was repealed unanimously. They can’t step forward without saying ‘We messed up,’ so you have a silence,” Elam told The Root. “I don’t think the law is going to change until we create an opportunity to come to the table. Not finger-pointing—I’m not mad—but we have to sit down somewhere and fix it. We have to fix it.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.