Last of a three-part series
Since the publication of the first part of this series, the Times-Gazette has heard from mothers who also are having trouble getting fathers to pay the child support they owe.
Each of these mothers expressed her frustration at the court system and how long it takes to receive payment, if received at all.
Michelle Mowery-Johnson is the spokeswoman for Tennessee's Department of Human Services [DHS] and she says that of the 240,000 child support cases in the state, roughly 60 percent do not pay consistently.
It's not just fathers who aren't paying, there are mothers who are considered as a non-custodial parent as well. But they only make up about 6 to 8 percent of those cases.
"We don't want to single out the fathers but, by-in-large, that's the case," Mowery-Johnson said.
But the enforcement of the ordered payments are in the hands of the legal system, and Mowery-Johnson says that the DHS can't tell the judge what to do in these cases. "A judge sets the orders ... if somebody's not paying, we would file a contempt petition." She added that about $36 million was collected via IRS tax refunds from parents who were not paying.
Bill Duffey, Tennessee's director for child support policy, said that their process is to get the cases to court and then the judges will make their own decision. But he said that enforcement actions have gone up over the last few years.
While realizing that not all parents are getting the support they need, Duffey pointed out that Tennessee is collecting twice the national rate of support payments. "We topped over $500 million last year and that's quite a number of collections. That's helping a lot of families."
But according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, there was $1,959,289,661 in total arrears (unpaid support) for 2005 for Tennessee, collecting only 18.69 cents on every child support dollar owed last year.
Duffey said that aside from using the IRS to get funds, another method being used is the revocation of driver's licenses, which the state has found as an effective tool of enforcement tool. This could be extended to recreational, professional, hunting and fishing licenses as well as passport denial. Garnishment of wages is another method of enforcement.
"There is a lot of enforcement actions going on," Duffey said. "One of our measuring sticks is collection." In 2003, the amount was $6.2 million taken in to about $8.3 million in 2006. "Something has got to be going on for the collections to increase."
Mowery-Johnson also said that collection from the parents have been on the rise for the past few years, but "it's sad, because for those who are not getting it [the support payments]... We can tell you about the collections and how they've been going up, but if you're not getting it, it doesn't mean a whole lot, does it?"
DHS is also quite aware of the overload of cases and the need for more lawyers to work them, and Bedford County is just a drop in the bucket. While the four counties in the 17th Judicial District has just 6,200 cases on the books, Shelby County is burdened with 120,000 cases.
"It's not isolated to that judicial district, we see the need in offices throughout the state. The numbers just grow every year," Mowery-Johnson explained.
Duffey said his office has been making getting another attorney to handle child support cases in the 17th Judicial District a "high priority." They have been petitioning the Assistant Attorney Generals Conference, which oversees the resources and funding for the district attorneys.
However, the help that the child support offices offer is free. Parents don't have to hire a lawyer to deal with the issue and it is stated and federally funded, without local funds.
Understanding the process that one has to go through to get child support is one hurdle that must be overcome.
One question normally asked is how to get a child support order enforced when the non-custodial parent doesn't pay. According to the state's child support division, the primary enforcement tools of support collection are administrative and do not require the involvement of the court.
Administrative remedies can be used to collect all past due child support, but when that doesn't work, the court may be petitioned. Parents should contact their local child support enforcement office for help.
All 50 states are required to pursue all child support enforcement program functions for out-of-state cases in the same way they do for in-state cases.
In many cases, the parent who has been ordered to pay simply cannot be found. However, there are several ways authorities can track them down. This involves searching automated online sources such as driver's licenses, wage and unemployment records, vital records, criminal records, and health records, such as TennCare.
On the federal level, the state can access the Federal Parent Locator Service, which includes searching records from the IRS, Social Security Administration, the National Directory of New Hire (a nationwide directory of all newly hired or rehired employees), and the Federal Case Registry, a nationwide directory of child support case information.
If the parent who has been ordered to pay is living out-of-state, the local child support office can submit a locate data sheet to the state in question. Once it is returned with possible leads, the local office can then pursue verification of information through postmaster letters, employer letters, etc. If those leads prove successful, the local child support office can pursue enforcement through the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA).
But the most critical piece of information that a parent can supply to help authorities in finding the dead-beat parent is his or her Social Security number. If not known, it might be found on hospital records, bank records, insurance policies, pay stubs, or income tax returns.
Also, Tennessee state law stipulates that all orders of child support must require either parent to extend health insurance available through an employer at the time the order is issued or at any time in the future to cover the children. If the non-custodial parent has health insurance available, but does not enroll their child, the parent should contact the local child support enforcement office.
Sometimes a parent refuses to pay child support but owns property in the state. While a lien can be issued against the property, this does not by itself result in the immediate collection of any past due support but only prevents the owner from selling, transferring, or borrowing against, the property until the debt is paid.
The presence of a property lien may encourage the dead-beat parent to pay the past-due child support in order to retain clear title to the property. For help with this, call the local child support enforcement office or a Customer Service Representative at 1-800-838-6911.
At any time, both parents have the right to request a review of the child support order and current income information will be reviewed to determine if an change is appropriate based on the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines.
Those who want to calculate how much child support is owed can go to the Internet website at www.alllaw.com/calculators/Childsupport/... to learn how much is owed.
Payments can also be made online at tennesseesdu.eposasp.com/. For those receiving child support, funds can be direct deposited. Go to state.tn.us/humanserv/cs/cs_dirdep.htm for more information.
One thing that Duffey tells the parents trying to get the child support payments is "don't give up."
"Stay with the program ... we're aware of the need for more resources. We try to use the best techniques, such as the automated enforcement system... We realize that there are individuals that have not received support that they desperately need. We are taking the steps we can within our ability to get those resources."