Child-support agency tries “softer” approach

Posted at 8:23 AM, Nov 03, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-03 17:30:40-05

The state's Division of Child Support Enforcement has abandoned its Top-10 list of deadbeat parents, saying the debtors deserve privacy. Instead, the agency's staff is using things like Internet databases to find the debtors, and job counseling to get them working.

"Sometimes, internally, we call this the 'softer side' of DCSE," said Ron Harris, an assistant director.

Harris said while the Top 10 list of Most Wanted Child Support Evaders shook loose cash, he said the effort was "Draconian" and sometimes embarrassing to both the non-paying parent and the children. He said the agency is trying to draw a distinction between parents who won't pay, and parents who can't pay.

"We don't like to use the term 'deadbeat' for those who don't pay, but dead broke," he said. "Putting a picture of somebody in the paper, sometimes it will make an individual dig in deeper, for the embarrassment, for a lot of different reasons."

Now state officials recommend something called ICMP, or an Intensive Case Monitoring Program, instead of jail. Parents who owe are paired with a counselor who can help find jobs, help with substance-abuse problems, and help overcome other barriers to making regular child-support payments.

But Harris conceded it is sometimes difficult to sort out the parents who aren't paying because of hardships from those who are  shirking responsibilities.

After a year of court hearings and broken promises to pay, Tikela Sandelin landed in jail last week. She told NewsChannel 3 that, as a high-school dropout, she's been unable to care for her kids or get a job. A judge more than a year ago ordered her to pay $65 monthly for one of her children, but she admitted in court Tuesday she has not paid a penny.

"If no one is going to hire me, I can't change my predicament," she told NewsChannel 3 from jail.

But just before he locked her up, Judge Randall Blow called the mall clothing store where Sanderlin said she had interviewed. A manager told the judge Sanderlin did come looking for a job, but there was not a job to offer her.

The judge said had she made any effort to pay -- even just a few dollars -- she could have avoided jail.

"Maybe you could have cleaned houses," the judge said. "You've got to pay something."

Harris says cases like this are the hardest, where officials have to decide whether someone is trying to find work, or is playing the system.

"You can't ignore the fact that there are individuals the economy did tank," he said. "There are people looking for work and can't find it."

However, Harris also conceded that often, "Once that threat of jail comes out, then money comes out of the woodwork."

Judge Blow said when a parent is jailed, he and prosecutors decide on a "purge" amount that must be paid in a lump sum to end the sentence. In Sanderlin's case, it is $750. If her family pays it, she can leave jail. If not, she'll serve 90 days.

Last fiscal year, DCSE collected a record $664 million. Harris says that's proof the "softer" approach works. However, he says the collections have plateaued in the past years while the total owed has grown to $3 billion.