Bankrupt Mom’s Debt for Son’s Jail Upkeep is Forgiven

A federal appeals court forgave the $16,000 debt of a mother who could not pay the remainder of her son’s bill for his stay in Orange County juvenile detention.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that Maria Rivera’s debt for her son’s upkeep while in detention is not like alimony or child support that must be paid even though the debtor files for bankruptcy. The county claim is dischargeable against the debtor, the panel held.

In California, parents of juvenile detainees are liable for reasonable costs of support of the minor while the child is held in detention. The law imposes a $30 per day cap on food, closing, personal supplies and medical expenses.

Rivera’s son was held involuntarily between 2008 and 2010. She was billed $23.90 per day with an additional $2,199 for legal expenses. Her bill came to $16,372. Rivera tried to pay. After selling her home in 2010 she paid the county $9,508. When she failed to appear in juvenile court over claims for the remaining $9,900, the county won a default judgment for the amount.

She filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. Although she received a full discharge of her debts in January 2012, Orange County continued to press her for payment, arguing the debt was like a “domestic support obligation” and like alimony and child support it could not be waived in bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy court reopened her case and said she had to pay the debt.  Rivera appealed.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt called the county’s persistence to collect the debt after she paid more than half “troubling” because it compromises the goals of juvenile corrections and, ironically, harms her ability to provide support for her son in the future.

He pointed out the bankruptcy law is intended to give people a “fresh start.” Exceptions to wiping clear debt come when the state wants to protect family obligations, including child support and alimony. This has meant that the state may also claim familial debts for such things as foster care.

But Rivera’s debt to the Orange County Probation Department was different, Reinhardt said. The goal of  the department was law enforcement.

“Rivera’s son was taken insto custody not in order to provide a place where he could secure a wholesome upbringing but because of his criminal misbehavior,” Reinhardt wrote.

It is inconsistent with precedent to characterize her debt to the county as similar to foster care. “Juvenile detention serves not domestic but correctional ends,” he said.  It was her son’s actions, not her, that led to his detention, and thus his actions, not hers, that burdened her with the debt, he said.

Case: In re Rivera, No. 14-60044

 

 

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