A Father’s Interest: Attorney Stephanie Burgess Breaks Down Child Support Rights to a Black Dad

Black love is a beautiful and very real thing. Unfortunately, another sad reality for too many of us, is Black divorce. Once a divorce is actually underway the traumatic pain and anxiety for both is immense. Often they are left trying to grasp the last floating fragments of a broken love. A love they were sure would last forever. The children are the most enduring embodiment of that moment. At no time should a child be weaponized by either parent. It seems like something that started in love, became riddled with words like legitimation, modification—legal jargon. Once that transition happens, everyone suffers. The children may suffer the most.

An additional pain comes for Black men in the way society frames them. Black fathers have been stereotyped as absent, unloving and neglectful since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  Anytime we are captured doing anything a “normal” dad (meaning non-Black dad), it’s a cause for celebration. I was a soccer coach, a jiu-jitsu teacher, a chess and cheerleading coach. When I mention this to parents of other races, they often look at me like I’m an alien. However, I know many other Black dads who have done the same for all kinds of sports and academic pursuits for their kids. 

Kenya Barris’ Netflix show #BlackAF’s arguably most eye-opening episode, called “Yup You Guessed It. Again, This Is Because of Slavery,” unflinchingly tackled the negative stereotypes Black fathers wrestle with daily. Character Drea Barris, one of Barris’ “daughters” on the show, played by Iman Benson says “Black dads not only have to fight the many battles of fatherhood, but also the ghosts of all the Black dads before them—and the narrative that society loves to perpetuate: That the Black man, the Black father, is less than.”

Sadly, many times too many women who know their ex husband is intentionally upstanding (despite whatever issues between them caused the split) utilize social media and the white supremacist court system to attack the man’s character and financial standing. Many mothers become deliberate wedges between the children and the father. 

A few months ago, after speaking with a friend online, he invited me to the Black Fathers group on Facebook. Astonishingly, 89,000 members are in this group. Positive and supportive of one another, it got me through some emotionally tough times. Often, I see brothers sharing the confusion about their legal options in regards to custody and child support issues. Many dads just don’t know where or whom to go to for proper information.

Let me introduce you to Stephanie Burgess, Esq, a family and criminal law attorney, based in the state of Georgia. Stephanie is a real-life Annalise Keating in the courtroom in her fight for fathers who are confused about their options when child support and divorce deem inevitable. She hosts regular free workshops to help Black fathers get right financially with the court system, as well as emotionally, by helping them get proper visitation rights with their children. 

Here, Stephanie and I look at some of the issues Black fathers face in understanding child support, custody rights, as well as info on other legal moves that they can make to help them through this often unsettling and confusing process.

EBONY: How do you think Black fathers are seen by the public?

Stephanie Burgess Esq: Black fathers are always talked about as a collective group. You don’t hear people talking about white fathers that way. We have some excellent Black dads, but they get a bad rap.

There are no consistent negative opinions about White, Asian or Latino fathers. Black dads do appear to be singled out. There are statistics that show Black fathers to actually be more supportive than fathers from other communities across America. 

Now, let’s get down to the truth about child support.  Many dads think because they pay child support, that the payments immediately equal direct access to their kids. That is not the case at all, is it? 

There are a lot of myths out here about child support. [The truth is] the child support enforcement agency is really a collection agency. Child support enforcement does not grant any rights, visitation or custody, nor do they have the authority to do so.  Once a father is put on notice about child support, most dads are cool with paying. But they’re like, “Hey, if I’m going to pay, I need to be able to see my child. I have rights, too.”  But, no, that’s not the case.

What do you think are some of the most immediate things fathers should know once child support issues are officially inside the court system?

In Georgia, there are actually two types of fathers:  A biological father and a legal father. A biological father deals with paternity which establishes the right for support. Child support comes from the DNA. That’s child support, and child support only. Rights for legal fathers grant custody, visitation, inheritance, last name. Georgia law specifically states that failure to pay child support is not a reason for a legal father not to have rights to see his child

Georgia courts base child support on gross income, as opposed to net. Let’s say you were getting unemployment income—Georgia gets that too. They’ll get your bonuses and overtime. If you are unable to pay the required amount, the courts can garnish your wages; they can suspend your driver’s license or  put you in jail.

That’s going to be a big factor in how the courts assess what you make, right?

I find an Achilles heel for a lot of fathers is they are actually providing for their children, but it’s not under court order. Let’s say a man has been shooting his ex $400 a week since the child’s been two, but there’s no court order for that. That is considered a gift by the courts. The dad is going to feel taken advantage of, because no one’s going to give him credit for that money. 

That happened to me when I split with my ex-wife. I was consistently paying her for at least four or five months before we went to court. Stupidly, on my part, they were cash transactions. I will never do that again. We even signed a document agreeing to a certain amount. I kept my word sometimes, giving a little more for gas, etc. I was blown away to learn that none of that mattered in court. I thought they would at least see me as a serious intentional co-parent. Nobody cared. I was shocked.

None of that mattered. It makes fathers disgruntled.  I have this little saying, “Court is not about truth. It is about proof!”

I’m a family law attorney and I’m a criminal law attorney. I have an affinity for young brothers, single dads and dads who don’t know they have rights. They don’t even know their legal options.  I’m walking around with knowledge of how the court works, so I’m going to put their wheels on. That’s the way I feel I need to do it.

They need to be intentional and once they have a child, they should pay. Child support is mandatory in Georgia. You can’t waive child support. Now, like in the example you gave, parents can agree. They can agree, and that agreement can be upheld, unless it’s not in the best interest of the child.  Court is about proof, not truth. Proof is, I sent you a text message saying this money is for child support.

Here is one question I saw in the Black Fathers Facebook group:  “I’m taking my ex-wife to court to try and change our custody agreement. After some disturbing stories from my daughter, I hired a private eye to do some digging. She struck gold. Two criminal cases, including possession of heroin and felony theft. She pled down on the drug charge, but the theft case is still open. My daughter has failed both the sixth and the seventh grade, but summer school saved her twice. We also discovered that she is squatting in a house illegally, and has a court date to possibly be removed next week. I have her court case number, and everything, but I don’t know if the judge will even hear it coming from a private eye. My question is, will any of this be admissible?”

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The answer is yes. All of that is helpful, and it goes to the weight of evidence. Obviously, it sounds like he should file a complaint for a modification of custody. The court looks at each parent’s ability to provide for a child. They look at the capacity each parent has to provide the child with good housing, food, all of that, so if she’s squatting—that’s an issue.

The other thing is that they’re also going to want any evidence of substance abuse.  Criminal behavior matters because you’re looking at the best interest of the child. All of these are factors that go into it. It could change the way custody is granted because there’s no preference in Georgia to one parent or the other. It’s not like a mother is favored more than a father, or anything like that. So what I tell my clients is that at a time when you know you probably are looking at litigation, I would search social media, for any evidence, collect it, and give it to your attorney.

The attorney can get certified copies of those convictions. They can file a request for production of documents or interrogatories, or whatever the case may be.

When a father is  placed on child support, it normally triggers that father to go talk to a lawyer. That’s what triggers legitimation. They get placed on child support, and they’re like, “I’m paying child support, so I want my rights.” From legitimation, they’re able to have visitation, have custody, and have legal rights to have the child’s name changed if they did not sign the birth certificate.

The next thing that’s a myth too: People believe they’ve legitimated their child because they signed the birth certificate. In Georgia, signing the birth certificate doesn’t give you any rights to custody, or visitation. None. Zero.

What is your advice for fathers who are currently incarcerated?

The fathers need to understand that the agencies don’t always communicate between one another. So let’s say someone’s on child support and they’re locked up.  Go ahead and notify the Department of Children Services or the Department of Human Children Services that they’re incarcerated. Seek a modification of child support due to a substantial change in income.

Georgia has this fatherhood program, and it assists them. Fathers who are locked up definitely want to communicate with the court that they are locked up. Because then, even if those payments continue to accrue, the court can look at it to see that this was not just a willful non-payment, especially because the interest can add up fast. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_708SaoS64

Fathers can check in with Stephanie Burgess on Instagram @burgesslawgroup

Adisa Banjoko is an author and curator based between San Francisco and London, UK. He is also host of Bishop Chronicles podcast.

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