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Basic Rights of Children

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BASIC RIGHTS OF CHILDREN

This document tells you the following:

  • How long do parents owe duties to their children?
  • What kind of support must parents provide for their children?
  • What kind of protection from abuse must parents provide for their children?

INTRODUCTION

When a child enters into a family, the parents assume new legal rights and duties.

These duties persist until:

  • the child reaches the age of maturity or adulthood. This is 18 years old in Georgia, or 20 if the child is enrolled in secondary school.
  • the child gets married.
  • the child becomes an emancipated minor. This means that the court declares that the child can survive independently apart from his or her parents.

THE RIGHT TO SUPPORT

The Georgia Code requires each parent to provide for the maintenance, protection, and education of his or her child until the child reaches the age of majority or age 20, if the child is enrolled in a secondary school. Before 1979, only fathers had a legal duty to support their children. The case of Orr v. Orr (440 U.S. 268 (1979)) extended this duty to mothers.

Parents must provide children with the necessities. These are food, clothing, housing, and medical care. They also have an obligation to supervise their children and to provide proper parental care and control for their physical, mental, and emotional health and morals.They also have an obligation to see that children go to school at least as long as the law requires. In Georgia, that is until the age of 16.

The parents in the following situations all claim that, because of circumstances, they no longer have to support their children. Are they right?

Situation 1 Pat is a widow, and her job keeps her on the road. So, she's arranged for her daughter, Ginger, 7, to live with her sister. Her sister has several children. Ginger is just one more to feed. Pat figures she doesn't need to pay her sister any money for Ginger's support. She needs all the money she makes anyway.

Situation 2Lewis, 5, is a troubled kid. He's also illegitimate. Both of his parents have their own separate families. He lives with his mother, Aline. His father, Woody, is supposed to pay child support. He rarely does. Should Woody feel responsible for an illegitimate son? Why or why not?

Situation 3Jesse is divorced and lives far away from his former wife and two young children. He knows they're getting by. Besides, he wants to remarry and needs his whole salary. So he stops sending child support payments.

As long as parents have parental rights to their children, they have a legal duty to support them financially.

The parents' obligation holds true even if the children do not live in their homes. If a child lives with a relative, the relative could sue for the child's support from a living parent. In situation 1, Pat's sister could sue her for Ginger's support.

The legal duty of support extends to both parents of illegitimate children. In situation 2, the father has a legal duty to pay support.

An illegitimate child is one whose parents were not married to each other when the child was born and do not later marry. Georgia statutes now refer to illegitimate children as children "born out of wedlock." Note that the law favors the legitimization of children. It assumes that it is in the best interest of the children. For this reason, Georgia law recognizes the children of a bigamous marriage as legitimate. Further, a child can be legitimated if a father legally recognizes a child as his. He can do this through marrying the mother. He can also obtain permission from the superior court by filing a petition and obtaining a legitimation order.

What if in situation 2, Woody denied that he was Lewis's father? Is there anything that Aline could do?

When it is not certain who the father of a child is, the mother, the alleged father, the child, or the child's custodian may ask the superior court to determine paternity. In such a case, the court may require the parties involved to take a human leucocyte antigen (HLA) blood test. Such tests are considered to be reliable in determining fatherhood. Additional scientific tests to establish paternity can be ordered by the court. One of these is a deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) probe. If the DNA test establishes a 97 percent or higher probability that the man in question is the father, then he is presumed to be the father unless he can prove through other evidence that he is not. If Woody is proved to be Lewis's father, the court will require him to support Lewis.

In a divorce, the settlement for child support is a court order. The court will enforce its order very strictly. In situation 3, it could hold Jesse in contempt of court for failing to pay support. It could put him in jail for failing to pay child support. The parent can also be charged with abandonment for failure to pay child support.

The court may also garnish the wages of the parent who has failed to pay. This means that the court can order the parent's employer to deduct a certain amount from each paycheck and send it to the other parent. A garnishment is usually initiated by the parent who is supposed to receive the support.

Another way in which the courts enforce child support payments is called an "Income Deduction Order." Here, child support is automatically withheld from the paycheck of the parent who is ordered to pay the child support. This money is sent directly to the other parent.

Sometimes the court orders a father to pay child support into the registry of the county court. Then the registrar pays the mother the child support, taking a small percentage as a fee.

Recent state and federal laws have strengthened the enforcement of child support. For example, federal laws help locate fathers who have abandoned their children. Fathers can be found through social security numbers and by other legal means. Today it is becoming more difficult to escape child support obligations.

What if a parent cannot financially support the children? Families that cannot provide for children under 18 may be eligible for financial assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This is a federal program administered in Georgia through the county DFCS (Department of Family and Children Services) offices.

Eligibility requires one of the following conditions:

  • Father has deserted or is in jail and does not send money.
  • Father is at home but cannot find work and does not receive unemployment compensation.
  • Parent or parents have a physical or mental disability which prevents them from supporting their children.

Other government aid may be available for people with low incomes. Examples are Medicaid and food stamps (partial payment of health care and grocery bills).

Public assistance is not a gift, however. Consider the next situation.

Situation 4Burt walked out on his wife, Karen, and three young children. Karen was not able to get a job that paid enough to support herself and the children, so she obtained aid through AFDC. Two years later, Burt was located in a neighboring state. He had a good job. Was Burt liable for past support of the children?

Georgia's Child Support Recovery Act (1973) says the "payment of public assistance to or on behalf of a child creates a debt due…the state by the parent or parents responsible for the support of the child.'' The act enables DFCS to be reimbursed by the parent who should have been paying child support.

In situation 4, Burt would be liable for present and past support. This means that DFCS could get its money back by garnishing Burt's wages. Burt could be charged with the crime of child abandonment.

THE RIGHT NOT TO BE ABUSED

Situation 5Sometimes Ollie, age 12, misses school for a whole week. His pal, Matt, assumed that Ollie was sickly. One day Ollie tells Matt that when his mother gets mad at him she locks him in a closet for days. He shows Matt bruises on his hands from pounding on the door. Matt knows that Ollie is always truthful. What should Matt do?

Situation 6Paula's mother constantly threatens to pour boiling water over her if she doesn't obey. Her mother has never done this, but Paula lives in a state of fear from the threat. Can she do anything?

Children have the right not to be abused. The law protects them from physical (situation 5) and emotional (situation 6) abuse by parents or other people. Parents have the duty to protect their children from abuse by others.

You have learned about the 1981 Georgia law providing court protection against family violence. However, victims of family violence are often afraid to report abuse. Also, friends, neighbors, or teachers often hesitate to get involved.

Georgia law requires those working in many professions to report suspected child abuse. These include doctors and nurses; school teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors; social workers; child care and child-counseling personnel; and law enforcement officers. It is a crime for these people to deliberately fail to do so.

The law does not require other people, such as neighbors, to report suspected child abuse. However, to encourage them to do so, the law protects well-intentioned people who report child abuse from being sued for slander.

Whom should you call in your county to report child abuse? The county DFCS office should be contacted. Look under entries for your county in the phone book. Child abuse can also be reported to a juvenile court service worker, the police, or the district attorney.

Children also have the right not to be neglected by their parents. A parent must provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter for his or her child. Adequate means just that. It does not mean designer clothes or everything else that a child ever wanted. A child who does not receive adequate food, clothing, and shelter may be found by the court to be deprived. Neglect can also be reported to DFCS, which can help the family get necessary food, clothing, and shelter.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Third Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2001). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Apr 12, 2005