By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
OTTAWA — A new program in Putnam County is hoping to improve the collection of delinquent child support payments.
Juvenile and Probate Judge Michael Borer said the program will try to remove some of the obstacles and excuses violators give for not working, such as the lack of a high school diploma or problems finding an employer who will hire someone with a felony record.
“What we tried to do is open a dialog that would allow us to see why they’re not paying their support,” Borer said.
There are approximately 1,350 child support cases in Putnam County, according to Beth Coleson, a supervisor for the Child Support Enforcement Agency. Of those, between 100 and 150 are chronic nonpayers, she said.
“Some of those people might be getting SSI (Supplemental Security Income) where we can’t collect or they have a medical disability that prevents them from working. But then we have others that just absolutely don’t pay and we’re constantly bringing them back into court,” she said.
Borer said some of the offenders have a history that goes back to a time when he worked as an attorney for the agency, prior to becoming a judge.
“Some of the folks that we have, we have probably put in jail five, six, seven times. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” Borer said.
He said the person who sparked the idea for the program was one such violator.
“He came back and we were looking at another contempt citation because he wasn’t paying again,” Borer said.
At one point, Coleson offered to help the man fill out a job application.
“I pulled it up on my computer and I said well, let’s apply here. There’s an opening,” she said. “We got through the application and it came to high school education and he didn’t have a high school diploma and no GED, and we kind of had to stop because he didn’t have that and that was one of the qualifications to get the job.”
“Beth found out that he didn’t have a GED because he failed the math portion on two separate occasions and he didn’t take it again because he didn’t have the financial resources to do it,” said Borer.
“At that point it became somewhat clear to us that there were opportunities to remove some of these obstacles by simply pointing them in the right direction. So that kind of planted the seed to see if we could do something different,” he said.
Notices were sent to violators requesting they meet with the judge every other week to discuss why they aren’t paying child support. The first session was held March 6. At that time, five reported having found employment.
“We’re trying to make it a nonadversarial proceeding, and what we did is we tried to open a dialog,” said Borer.
“Essentially we asked them, ‘Jim Smith, why aren’t you paying your child support?’ And then they would come up with various answers,” he said.
Some of the violators said they didn’t have a driver’s license which prevented them from getting to a job, he said.
“The Child Support Enforcement Agency has as one of the tools in its toolbox the ability to suspend somebody’s driver’s license who’s not paying support. That may seem somewhat nonsensical but we use it only as a last resort,” he said. “If they have the license and they’re not looking for work, then we take the license as a way of trying to rush them into that program.”
Borer said several people also had their license suspended by another court or through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Violators are told to come back in two weeks with proof of what they’ve done to remove the DMV suspension.
“And once that’s taken care of, we will remove our suspension. But we’re not going to remove our suspension first,” Borer said.
Other violators claimed health concerns. They were told they needed to provide medical documentation to the agency.
“All we’re trying to do with a lot of them is clear up the docket,” Borer said. “If you can’t work because you have a health problem, you just need to tell us that and provide the medical documentation.”
Some of the violators have felony arrests and said they couldn’t find a job. Coleson was able to provide them with the names of area employers that hire felons.
The violators will be required to report back every other Thursday and tell Borer what they’ve done to work on their goals.
“One individual came in and had a problem with their transportation, the car was broken down. So for him it was simple. Just come back in two weeks and tell me what you did with your car because that’s where we have to start with this,” he said.
“We want to break this down to the most basic problem and see if there’s some way that we can address it,” said Borer. “Now we know we can’t address all of these problems, but if we can collect more support, everybody wins.”
Borer and Coleson were both pleased with the first session.
“I don’t think anybody was upset that they had to be there,” said Coleson. “I think after they left they felt that maybe here’s the help that I need. It might be just the push to help them.”
Borer said many of these people have a negative opinion about the agency and as a result don’t make contact when problems arise.
“So many of these folks get behind and their contact with the agency is not always a positive experience because they’re not paying and they’re not seeking work,” he said.
“I usually tell them I take no pleasure in having to come to court,” Coleson said. “That’s the last place I want to be. I want them out there seeking work and trying to find a job. That’s the goal here is to get them working and able to pay their bills.”
Borer said he’s heard from some people that the agency is “soft” on child support and those who don’t pay.
“If they’re in contempt of court because they’re in violation of a court order, they’re still in contempt and nothing we’re doing is changing that,” he said.
“They know they can come in and tell us things and nothing they say is going to be used against them. But nothing they say is going to prevent them from having a citation filed against them for contempt of court because they’re still not paying support or still not filing forms,” he said.
Since Putnam County is a smaller county, a hands-on program like this may work, Borer said.
“We’re fortunate in Putnam County because most people try to pay, but we’re also a small enough county that we can do this and bring these people into court a lot more frequently,” he said.
If the program proves successful, it may expand to include violators in the general probate division — divorces and dissolutions — which are handled by Judge Randall Basinger, said Borer.
“We don’t see this as limiting,” Borer said. “Right now we’re going to plant the seeds and we’re going to see what happens.”
Wolf: 419-427-8419 Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf
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