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Thursday, June 22, 2006 02:33 pm

Deadbeats or Dead Broke?

A new state law recognizes that many Illinois parents who don’t pay child support are simply too poor to meet their obligations.

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Outside Courtroom 6B in the Sangamon County Building, a young man with rotten teeth and arms covered in tattoos stands nervously as an assistant state’s attorney discusses his child-support payments. To the man’s surprise, he’s paid up. “Whew! I thought I was going to jail,” he says, obviously relieved. Here, every Thursday morning, child-support cases, brought by the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, go before a circuit-court judge. In a typical court proceeding, one table is reserved for the plaintiff or prosecutor, another for the defendant — but in this courtroom, the state’s attorneys occupy both of the large tables, each littered with manila folders. The paperwork is stacked so high, it’s a miracle it doesn’t fall over. One case involves a man, recently released from prison, who claims that he hasn’t yet paid child support because he’s hoping to qualify for unemployment benefits. He probably won’t. Another case concerns a construction worker who was injured on the job and was forced to take a lower-paying job at a fast-food restaurant. He is asking the court to amend his child-support order. The judges who preside in Courtroom 6B must filter all the “who did what to whom” and determine, ultimately, what’s best for
children.
As Associate Judge Charles Gramlich, one of three judges who handle child-support cases in Sangamon County, says, the goal is to “try to get every nickel we can” for children. “Whether you pay child support or not is a fairly straightforward issue,” he says. The reality, as Gramlich and others concede, is that many noncustodial parents are simply unable to pay. The people who typically come to this courtroom aren’t professionals with high-priced defense attorneys. They’re the working poor, many of whom lack so much as a high-school diploma. Whereas many noncustodial parents — mostly fathers — are unwilling to fulfill their obligations to their offspring, a large number of them are simply broke. Recognizing that reality, Illinois lawmakers recently passed legislation to enable low-income individuals who owe back child support to the state the opportunity to renegotiate their debt if they agree to adhere to a payment schedule. Sponsored by two Chicago Democrats, state Rep. William Davis and state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, on behalf of the DHFS, the new law, supporters say, reflects the
state’s tempered approach to enforcing child-support orders.
The goal of the legislation, says Pam Compton, administrator of the state’s Office of Child Support Enforcement, is to promote “more economic stability for families, particularly economically challenged families.”
According to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s press office, the governor has until July 1 to take action on the bill, which he is still reviewing.
llinois, like other states, is getting more and more aggressive in collecting child support, including posting the names of deadbeat parents who owe more than $5,000 on a Web site.
Those efforts, Compton says, have helped boost collections. Illinois child-support enforcement officials collected $229 million of $2.8 billion owed in back child support, in the year ended Sept. 30, 2005. Altogether, the state took in over $1 billion, most through wage garnishment, Compton says. Not paying can have other consequences. Take the case of John Stuart, who acknowledges that he didn’t pay child support for nearly three years. As of last week, the Springfield man acknowledges owing his ex-wife about $9,600, including interest, for his teenage son. While he neglected his financial obligation to his son, Stuart says, he indulged his hobbies — motorcycles and falconry — and neither bikes nor birds are cheap. But now the 36-year-old Stuart claims that he’s ready to pay — and grow — up. A concrete finisher by trade, Stuart was offered a job with Houston-based Halliburton to work in Afghanistan. It’s a good chunk of money, he says, plus the job puts him right in the center of the war on terrorism, which appeals to the thrill-seeker in him.
Unfortunately for Stuart, the Sangamon County family-court system isn’t thrilled that he fell behind on his child-support payments, so when he applied for a passport to travel to the Middle East with his potential employer, Stuart was rejected. Under federal law, a passport may be denied to anyone owing more than $5,000 in child support. Also, certain professional and recreational licenses, such as the one Stuart must possess to own his falcon, may be revoked. Right now, the state takes about $70 per week from his paycheck for current support, as well as the past-due amount. He wants to work out a deal with his ex wherein she would forgive part of the debt so Stuart can obtain a passport but accept fatter checks each month when he starts his new job. Time is running out. Next week, Stuart is scheduled to attend an orientation meeting in Houston. If he doesn’t make the plane, he’ll be able to continue working in Springfield — he just won’t earn as much as he would in Afghanistan, or be able to catch up on his child support payments as quickly. Stuart believes that his ex-wife and the State Disbursement Unit, a processing center for child-support payments, are conspiring to “torture” him. “We can play these little ‘let’s [expletive] each other’ games . . . if that’s how she wants to play,” he says. “I don’t know what else I can do.”
 
Stuart, and people like him who owe large amounts of child support, should be grateful that they live in Illinois instead of some other states — where the stick gets applied more often than the carrot does.
There are currently just four individuals, all men, marking time in Illinois’ prisons for failure to pay child support. Their sentences range from 18 months to two years. Compare that to neighboring Missouri — which has fewer than half as many residents as Illinois — where 347 people are doing prison time for failure to pay child support. In Texas, 43 people are incarcerated for criminal nonpayment of child support. Each of the four Illinois men behind bars owes at least $20,000. It costs taxpayers more than $22,600 a year to house an inmate. One thing is certain: These men are not going to pay anything from a prison cell. Jeffery Leving, executive director of the Illinois Council on Responsible Fatherhood, doesn’t see the fairness in sending men to prison for failure to pay child support when mothers, he says, aren’t held to a similar
standard:
“Fathers are frequently sent to jail for not paying support, but how often are mothers jailed for denying fathers visitation, falsely accusing them of physical and sexual abuse, and committing paternity fraud?”
The 21-member council, which develops programs to increase public awareness of the importance of fathers, was created in 2003 with passage of the Responsible Fatherhood Act. Judge Gramlich, who says that he orders people to jail for nonpayment of support “at least once per sitting,” says imprisonment is a necessary deterrent for some people. “I routinely put people in jail for nonpayment of support. When I do that I have to give them the keys to the jail,” he says, meaning that he can make them pay 20 percent of what they owe to get out. “You’d be surprised how many people come before me and say they don’t have the money, but no sooner than I set the escrow amount — whatever it is — and all of a sudden they’ve got the money.”
The No. 1 reason people don’t pay child support, Leving says, is because they can’t afford it, not because they’re unwilling to pay. According to the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, 70 percent of people who are ordered to pay child support earn less than $10,000 per year. Tell that to one single mother who asked that her name not be published, fearful that her daughter’s father might sever the already limited relationship he has with the child, as is often the case when they have a spat. She’s holding down two jobs — one with the state and another at White Oaks Mall — to make up for the $3,178 in child support she’s owed. “I think there should be some penalty if they don’t pay,” the mother says, “and there does not seem to be.”
The federal and state governments should give her his tax refund, she says. Stunned when she realizes that they can, she replies: “How? Do I have to ask for it or something?”

Back in Courtroom 6B, the hard-luck stories continue to roll out.
“This is set up like I haven’t been there for my kids,” complains one dad. Because the relationship with the mom didn’t work out and he no longer lives with his children, he complains, child-support-enforcement officials assume that he’s an absentee father. Another father, contesting the sum he’s been ordered to pay, complains that he won’t have anything left. “I won’t have nothin’ left to do nothin’ for my kids,” he tells Associate Judge Theodis Lewis. Lewis is unmoved. The point of child support, the judge tells the young man, is to help the custodial parent pay for the cost of child-rearing. The occasional Happy Meal or pair of sneakers might be nice — those are considered gifts — but custodial parents need hard cash for everyday necessities such as hot running water and rent, the judge explains. Whether the message gets through to the young man isn’t clear. He and others like him feel that a double standard exists, that the system isn’t holding the custodial parent to the same level of accountability. Sangamon County Board member Sam Cahnman, who was named to the Illinois Council on Responsible Fatherhood by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, represents noncustodial parents in his law practice and believes that further fixes are needed to make the system fairer for both sides. Why, for instance, should the state provide the custodial parents with free legal counsel in the form of the state’s attorney, asks Cahnman, who’s also running for the 99th House District seat against incumbent Republican Raymond Poe. Furthermore, judges typically won’t consider extenuating circumstances, such as when a parent is denied visitation rights, in which case a noncustodial parent would have to file a separate motion, resulting in more legal fees for his clients. Leving, of the state fatherhood council, is auditing the policies of major state agencies to determine whether they are “father-friendly” and putting together a task force to educate judges on father absence and its impact on children. Illinois also needs accountability laws to make custodial parents keep records of how they spend child-support payments, Leving says. Don’t like how the system works? Then file for custody, a judge might well say. “Many fathers don’t want custody. They’re perfectly happy being visiting parents; they just want their kids to be taken care of,” says Leving. He adds: “A lot of them — mothers and fathers — are still just children.”
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