First of a three part series.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The names in this story have been changed to protect anonymity.
It was slightly below freezing at 3 a.m. on a January morning nearly three years ago when Mary was forced to make the call.
Her daughter Jamie, not yet a year old, was sleeping in a child safety seat covered with several blankets to protect her from the elements. But perhaps the thick cover was also to keep her from seeing the desperation on her mother's face.
Because if the person on the other end of the pay phone said no, they would have no place to stay that night ... and for many more nights to come.
Mary and Jamie had been thrust into this dire situation several weeks before, when her boyfriend Bobby, Jamie's father, became violent and assaulted the mother of his child.
"I never want to see you or Jamie again!" he said. The fight left Mary with a back injury and her and her daughter without a place to live.
But after several weeks of staying at various places, Mary was running out of options. At one house she stayed, an alleged friend had stolen her prescription pain medication. At the latest place, the occupants were on the verge of their own domestic incident and Mary knew she could not keep her little girl in this kind of environment.
Standing at the pay phone, she called the last person she knew she could ask to take them in. Fortunately for the two of them, the sleepy voice on the other end of the phone, Peter, told them to come on over.
Although the mother's and daughter's stay was supposed to last only a few weeks, it turned into a 2 1/2 living arrangement since they had no other place to go. The two moved into public housing six months ago after Peter paid for the deposit on the apartment and Mary was finally able to find a full-time job.
Yet, in the nearly three years since the mother and child were thrown out into the street with no means of supporting themselves, Bobby has yet to pay one single cent in child support.
Mary has been fighting a long and frustrating battle in Bedford County courts, trying to force Bobby to help support the child he abandoned, but the system has done little to force him to pay, delaying hearings, postponing court dates and refusing to enforce the child support laws that are on the books.
In Tennessee, child support laws regarding payments can be enforced by intercepting IRS tax refund checks, reporting the father to the credit bureau, intercepting unemployment benefits, or the denial of passport rights. Suspension of driver's license and liens on property can also be used as an enforcement tool as well as jail time.
But Mary says none of the above options have been pursued by child support officials in Bedford County. In fact, when she calls Bobby to remind him about the matter, he threatens to have her charged with harassment.
"There is a court order," Mary said. "I told him that if he didn't pay, then they could end up taking it out of his disability check or he could go to jail for 10 days."
"He says 'I know I have to pay it' and said he will do it at the end of the month. But it was court ordered three months ago."
Support payments are determined by the non-custodial parent's net income and the number of children they have. One child would deduct 21 percent of the non-custodial parent's net income and if he has two children, then the deductions would be 32 percent.
If he has three or four children, the parent would pay 41 and 46 percent of their net income.
However, Mary claims that Bobby has either simply refused to work over the last three years or has claimed he is disabled, therefore no money can be taken from any paycheck.
The only support she gets for Jamie is a Social Security check taken out of Bobby's disability, but that is not considered child support, Mary says. He still owes $77 a month more, which was ordered in August, not to mention nearly $750 in arrears. The $750 is what he has owed as of July and Mary says she needs every penny.
The order says that "all payments shall be by income assignment through the respondent's employer," but since Bobby doesn't work, there has been nothing paid.
Jamie isn't the only child Bobby refuses to support; he has a daughter by another woman, now 6 years old, whom he does not support. But the mother of that child has signed an order with the court saying he doesn't have to pay. That isn't the case when it comes to support for Jamie.
Mary also is upset that after three years of this, she still has to take off valuable time from work to appear in court. Since she has no car, this is an added hardship, with the taxi costing $40 per round trip from Tullahoma.
She had once tried to have the case transferred to court in Manchester to make it more convenient, but the matter with Bobby's disability complicated matters. Then the state office in Fayetteville got hold of the records and learned that there had been no child support tacked onto the Social Security benefits.
Mary has been dealing with child support attorney Mitchell Crawford who works for the state's 17th Judicial District. She says that while he's "a very nice man and helpful" in court, when it comes to Bobby actually paying any money, nothing happens. She has told the Fayetteville office that Bobby has not paid, but she claims that she has not heard back from them at all.
"I think they need to do what they do to other people ... take his driver's license away, they're supposed to start there. He could do 10 days in jail and in some cases, they put men in jail for a length of time until the back money is paid."
Mary also said that she is aware that other men are put in jail in a matter of days after failing to pay child support, and she wonders why that hasn't happened in their case. And there is another case she is aware of in which the mother has fought this same battle for seven years.
Not surprisingly, the three years Mary has been fighting this battle has left her with a distrust of the court system. "I honestly think the system is dirty. He has worked. I think that anybody who knows anyone in the legal system can get away with it." She claims that Bobby has friends in local law enforcement and believes that this is what has kept him out of jail
"I think legal action should be taken. I can't keep going back and forth to court, I can't afford to keep paying $40 a trip plus time off work," Mary said. "And all that going to happen is we're going in and talk to Mr. Crawford, he's going to say 'you owe this' ... it's going to be a slap on the hand and then good-bye."
"That's what happens."