Prosecutors in search of new methods to cope with nonpayment of kid assist | State Information
This is the second of two parts on Missouri’s dysfunctional child support system. Read part I here.
Insley Stiles is a dedicated dad, but he doesn’t look like that on paper. He’s $ 32,000 in arrears with child support payments.
Stiles said he had been an alcoholic for most of his life, but he was highly functional and could hold onto a good, stable job most of the time. When his alcoholism finally became uncontrollable, he wasn’t working. He spent time in rehab trying to find a way to stop.
“When I just moved to this place where I am now, I was actually still detoxing and at that point couldn’t even find a job. I couldn’t help but shake my hands, ”said Stiles. “I could not think clear; it was really bad. For example, 2 liters of vodka a day is bad. “
He’s been sober for a year and a half now. He teaches karate, spends time with his six children, and does a job that he really enjoys. But the time he spent getting back on his feet added up.
Stiles is one of the many Missouri parents who got lost in the child benefit system. Stiles graduated from college but found the system impossible to figure out. In the meantime, he has continued to fall into arrears.
In order to relieve some of the burden, Stiles has tried to change his maintenance rules. The possibility to change the order automatically exists every three years or parents can request an earlier adjustment.
However, the last time he applied, his application was denied. He wanted to appeal, but said it would not be possible without a lawyer. He can’t afford one.
“I spoke to a lawyer; it would cost me $ 1,500 upfront just to get him to do something. And I can’t afford that, ”said Stiles.
Stiles works as a phlebotomist and senior lab technician, but after his checks are forfeited to clear some of his arrears, he only makes $ 7 or $ 8 an hour. That’s about 50% of his income.
“I love this job, but they take half of my paycheck before I see it. Half, ”said Stiles. “That’s not enough to survive in today’s society.”
Disincentives at work
Stephanie Wilkison, a former child support enforcement officer who has handled cases across the country, said her experience has shown that attachments can become an overwhelming burden for parents.
“If you take half of their income, they just won’t work because they can’t afford life,” said Wilkison. “You often see people stop working because they say, ‘I can’t survive, and I might as well need help where you can’t take it.'”
Stiles said there are times when he has been pushed to this point but he fears his mental health will skyrocket again.
“It was starting to feel, even though I love what I do… why bother? And I don’t want to go back to this room. That was a bad place, ”said Stiles.
Fortunately for Stiles, he was able to get free legal assistance through the Fathers & Families Support Center, a St. Louis organization that works with non-custodial parents to help people pay child support and keep in touch with their children.
He is also lucky that he will not be prosecuted for his arrears.
Cases with no support for crime carry up to four years of imprisonment, and it ranks 23rd in the top 40 most criminal offenses for all new admissions to the Missouri prison system for Fiscal Year 2020.
The average length of detention for those detained in Missouri for child support fees in 2017 was 341 days.
“An endless cycle”
Scott Altman, a family law expert at the University of Southern California, said a prison sentence of more than a day, research has shown, will not help induce unsecured parents to pay child support.
“Very brief, overnight jail stays were often effective in encouraging payments, but states that use more punitive measures, weeks or months in jail, usually backfired,” Altman said. “The reason it backfired was that if you put someone in jail, they tend to lose their job.”
The fact that Stiles has not been prosecuted represents a changing child support system.
The number of people convicted of failure to pay child support in Missouri has steadily declined, from 715 in 2010 to 220 in 2019.
The decline is partly because prosecutors are trying to change the way they enforce non-payment and partly because they rely on alternative child support courts.
Counties of St. Louis, Boone, and Clay are among those that have an alternate child support court that focuses on referring unsecured parents to services that could help them pay child support.
The Child Support Court is relatively new in Boone County. Judge Kimberly Shaw started doing this in 2019 after defending clients who were tried as an attorney for non-payment.
“It just seemed like an endless cycle for her. If they didn’t pay and didn’t have the funds to get to that point, the amount was simply increased, ”Shaw said. “If they weren’t paying child support, they often didn’t visit the child. That was a big topic for me. “
Research has shown that parents who pay child support are more likely to see the child – both because the custodial parent is more likely to visit and the non-custodial parent is not shamed or arrested for not making a financial contribution.
When someone is accepted into the program, Powerhouse staff analyze their needs and develop a personalized plan to address any issues that are at stake. This can mean anything from parenting courses to career counseling to drug therapy. Data from Powerhouse and Fathers & Families suggest that this approach can be successful.
Tim Fugate, manager of the Columbia office for powerhouse, said Boone County is at the beginning of an approach that could be helpful across the state.
“I think Boone County is very innovative when it comes to working with these customers. You know, I live in another county and I don’t think they’re so forgiving there, ”said Fugate. “I would like to take this program to other places.”
Fugate highlights one of the problems with child support reform: many of the judicial ramifications for non-payment of child support are driven by individual judges or prosecutors.
“Whether it’s the judge, whether it’s the child support prosecutor, I think there’s just one big discrepancy,” said Fugate.
This is reflected in the district child support tracking data. Some counties are still prosecuting dozens of men for nonpayment, while others are prosecuting almost none. Other counties track but almost exclusively recommend individuals for parole or special service, as in Boone County.
And, Fugate said, most people find Powerhouse’s services when they are already in conflict with the law. The next step would be to work with them at the beginning of their cases.
Start on the first day
Wilkison said Washington state has the most advanced childcare division in the country.
“We worked really hard in Washington state to develop that relationship with parents early on,” said Redmond. “Once you’ve built a relationship and a trust factor, it will be easier for you to have conversations about how you get and receive payments.”
She said it was important for the department to listen to parents when the situation changes.
“Circumstances may have changed and / or a pandemic might have occurred,” Redmond said. “When such circumstances arise, we as an agency need to listen to what those circumstances are and how we can best create an opportunity for consistent family payments to this family.”
Redmond said this helps create stable family dynamic for children that has both parents involved.
“It’s more important to make sure you have conversations, understand the circumstances of both parents, and then try to see how you can get lasting, consistent payments,” Redmond said. “Research has shown that the most important thing for the children is to receive regular payments.”
One frequently cited study found that regular child support had a positive impact on children’s cognitive test scores. Other studies indicate significant benefits.
Redmond said the department is still using enforcement methods like revoking a license but is trying to use them to contact the non-custodial parent. The department also sent some people to jail for non-payment, but said it was rare.
“You don’t want to have this type of appeal unless that person really has the means to pay and they just choose not to,” Redmond said. “Because it really is a coercive enforcement measure. And so the case is examined very carefully and it is ensured that this person willfully not pay instead of being insolvent. “
Of course, as the Missouri law enforcement differences show, it takes approval. Redmond said the department couldn’t get their model working without assistance.
“It really takes a whole community,” said Redmond. “And I would never say that there is no way we can do this alone. I have to pay tribute to all of our partners, including the legislature, for helping us make this development. “
Washington has about 310,000 child support cases, about 5,000 more than Missouri, but Washington has about 340 more social workers. In order to change the child support system, the department itself needs support from legislators, judges and public prosecutors.
When Stiles started getting help from Fathers & Families, it changed his relationship with child support. He said after trying to cope with his arrears on his own, he felt helpless.
“I got really depressed about the whole thing,” said Stiles. “They do not care. You are like that, this heartless machine condition. “
But the organization took the time to speak to him and now he’s getting back on track.
“There is actually someone out there who cares and is willing and able to help – it’s huge,” said Stiles. “I feel so much better when I get up every morning and go to work.”
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