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Struggling mother in ‘debtors’ prison’ fear

A single mother with a part-time job and debt said yesterday she feared arrest for a missed hearing in “humiliating” debt court over a debt of just $1,300.

Sheelagh Cooper, chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity in Bermuda, said that the woman’s plight showed “we need a system that exercises some level of compassion”.

The woman, a 34-year-old mother of two, who asked not to be named, added there was a warrant for her arrest after Magistrates’ Court refused to change the date for her last appearance, which she missed.

She said: “I owe less than $1,500. It was a personal loan for my children, about five years ago. I borrowed off a friend.”

The woman, a former bookkeeper, lost her job six years ago and has scraped by with a part-time job as a cleaner and also battled cancer.

She added applications for help from the Department of Financial Assistance had been unsuccessful. The woman said: “Basically, I struggle. My children and I have slept in cars before and on people’s couches.

“For the past four years, I’ve been staying with a godparent, which eases the pressure of where to stay tonight.”

She thanked the Eliza DoLittle Society charity for help, as well as community workers such as Gina Spence.

But she added: “By the time I get money to feed the children, it’s hardly anything left to pay bills.

“I might get $50 and then one of them gets sick, or I receive e-mails from school about uniform infractions.”

Ms Cooper said: “People think that debtors’ prison is a thing of the past. Examples like this indicate that it’s alive.

“She’s not refusing to pay. She needs to get back on her feet and find employment, and she needs a realistic payment plan. It is not a huge debt.”

The woman’s successful cancer surgery and medication in February was covered under the hospital’s indigent scheme, but the woman is under doctor’s orders not to work. Ms Cooper said: “She is still working part-time to feed her children. If that doesn’t ignite some compassion, I don’t know what does.”

Ms Cooper, the former president of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, has agreed to go with the woman for her next court appearance.

The woman said she was terrified after she was taken down to the cells from debt court in January and threatened with jail.

Juan Wolffe, the senior magistrate, told The Royal Gazette last year that debt court could be “heartbreaking”, but that the courts were reluctant to mete out “the ultimate consequence” of a prison term.

The woman admitted being unable to meet a $250 a month repayment scheme, which landed her in debt court in January.

She said she managed to have the repayments reduced to $100 a month — but even that was too much for her to afford.

She said: “I’m only getting $300 a week and I’ve still got to feed my kids. There are school clothes. The list goes on. They can eat all that in groceries.”

She said she had brought nothing to court towards her debt and told the magistrate the court’s demands were “impossible”.

The woman added: “They sent me downstairs and told me to find somebody to pay off $350 or they were taking me to the Co-Ed.”

She said that appearing before a courtroom and being treated with “sarcasm” had been “humiliating”.

The mother added that she had spent 15 days in jail six years ago after she was evicted and taken into custody by court bailiffs for failure to pay an earlier round of debt.

Ms Cooper said the prison time was for contempt of court, imposed when a debtor fails to comply with a court order to make payments.

The woman fought back tears as she talked about her fear of separation from her children.

She said: “I have nightmares where it happens again, and I lose them. I don’t know what I would do.”

The woman, who cannot afford to be represented by a lawyer, said the threat of imprisonment for returning to court with no money caused her to skip a scheduled appearance last month.

She said: “I e-mailed them saying I wouldn’t have any money until a certain date ahead. I have a little towards it now.”

Ms Cooper told the Gazette that she would ask the court to accept a “realistic” payment plan.

She added: “She has been advised by the courts to begin proceedings against the two fathers of her children to get child maintenance.

“That means she has to pay for paternity tests, which cost $700 each. That in addition to the court costs is prohibiting her from exercising her right to support.”

Ms Cooper added that debtors appeared in open court, but fathers who appear in front of a judge for child support hearings got the “much kinder environment” of family court.

She said: “It’s a very different scenario for delinquent fathers than it is for a mother in debt.

“You have to ask what is served by this.”

The fight to eliminate imprisonment for debt goes back to 2014, when the Progressive Labour Party, then in Opposition, attempted to have it taken off the books.

But a Private Member’s Bill, brought by then Opposition MP Wayne Furbert, was later withdrawn.