Parents who fall behind in their child support payments because they lose a job can face a minefield of challenges.
Being in arrears can lead to losing the very driver’s or professional licenses that make employment possible. They may have their tax refunds intercepted and their bank accounts seized. In some cases, criminal charges can be filed.
The longer a parent is out of work, the harder it is to catch up. It can take up to six months to adjust a child support order to recognize a lost or lesser-paying job, and the adjustments typically are not retroactive.
Portage County’s Department of Job and Family Services recently initiated a new program it hopes will help clients climb that mountain.
It has appointed the county’s first “child support employment service counselor” assigned specifically to work with unemployed child support obligators.
Veteran child enforcement agency staffer Sue Dougherty was appointed to the post, which marries two traditional county jobs — that of child support enforcement and employment counseling.
Deadbeat moms and dads need not apply, Dougherty said. Her full attention will be given to those with a genuine desire to support their families.
Job and Family Services director Judee Genetin said the new focus makes perfect sense.
“You can’t make child support payments if you’re not working,” she said. “And let’s say you finally find a job and get your first payment and we take 65 percent [in current and late support payments]. How likely are you to keep working?”
Dougherty’s position is part of an overall change in philosophy, said Genetin, who called it a kinder, gentler system than the traditional drive to “get the money at all costs. We don’t want to scare people by saying it’s all or nothing.”
Tools at Dougherty’s disposal include restoring driver’s and professional licenses of earnest clients who are doing their best to get back on their feet.
And while counties can’t reduce a court-ordered child support payment, there’s nothing to stop them from asking custodial parents for leniency.
Parents who are at odds with their exes may not be willing to take that step, but others may be open to a side agreement knowing it’s their best chance to get some money.
“Maybe we see if the obligator can pay only the current support for a few paychecks, and then increase it to make up for the arrears once they are settled in their new job,” said Roxanna Lyle, supervising attorney for Portage County’s child support enforcement agency. “They still owe it, but we’re talking about a smaller payment at first.”
Job and Family Services administrator Kevin Gowan said he’s seen the reaction some obligators have when they get too far behind.
“I’d rather have you pay $150 than rabbit off to Indiana and not pay anything,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dougherty will be guiding her clients through the county’s employment training programs and trying to help match them with employers in need of their skills.
Genetin said many counties are trying to “evolve” to meet the special need of child support payees. The effort has been encouraged by the Ohio Child Support Directors Association.
But Portage County is the first in the area with a designated cross-trained position.
The head of Summit County’s Job and Family Services, Pat Divoky, said she hadn’t heard of Portage County’s effort, but she is intrigued.
“I’m definitely going to talk to [Genetin] about that. It sounds good,” she said.
Portage County is paying for the new position out of its general budget, but if the program is successful in increasing child support payments, the county would see some return through a federal incentive program.
The new program is in keeping with other changes being made at One-Stop, the county’s employment services program, Genetin said. There is an overall focus on being family-friendly, she said.
For instance, there are new programs that help children who are aging out of the foster system find jobs, and a new fatherhood initiative.
The agency has also changed the way it helps county residents find jobs. For the first time, it is meeting with employers to create a database of needs and skills while offering to do initial interviews and directing appropriate applicants.
Dougherty said that database will come in handy as she tries to help place clients.
Her job is so new she’s only met with one client, a 30-something father of two who was fired from a job he’d had for eight years and hasn’t been able to find steady work in a long time.
“He said he wants to work,” Doughtery said, and that desire is mandatory.
Future referrals will come from the courts, or from child support enforcement employees who are in a position to know of cases “where someone is dealing with a barrier to getting a job,” she said.
Gowan said there are about 8,500 county residents with orders to pay child support. Of those, there are probably 2,000 to 3,000 that are behind in their payments, and Dougherty’s target is a small subset within that group.
“She’s the only employee specifically focused on the new initiative, so it’s hard to know” how many people she will impact, Genetin said. “But I would be happy to see her produce even 20 to 30 successful cases a year.”