What that means for Brenda is that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Felony Non-Support (FNS) Unit has moved – or at least helped shrink – the mountain of missed child support payments which once shackled her to two, and sometimes three, jobs.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says it also means much to her office’s ongoing effort to “change the culture” of crime and violence in the county. Custodial parents working long hours can spur delinquency in those children left with little or no adult supervision during crucial hours.
Worthy’s special child support unit has been a financial lift for many children and parents reeling from missed child support payments. In three years, the unit has collected some $13 million for struggling families and children. Last year was a bonanza, with $7.9 million collected.
Nancy Neff, Worthy’s chief of the Felony Non-Support Unit, emphasized that “every cent” collected goes to the families of those who have been missing the funds.
“Typically, the custodial parent and their children have gone many, many months without seeing a payment,” she said. “Sometimes, the back payments due amount to up to $60,000.”
Worthy acknowledges that by using criminal charging, the FNS unit is a muscle-bound ally in the effort to help get overdue money for children and custodial parents. Still, she says the non-support issue cannot be simply boiled down to fathers fleeing from the obligation to support their children. A myriad of complex factors leads to a cycle of missed child support payments.
“Certainly, it would be inhumane not to take into consideration the economy and what some people are facing during difficult economic times,” said Worthy. “Our goal is not to put people in jail. We want to work with parents to bring down their outstanding child support debt. That means continuing their monthly child support payments and then paying a bit more to help bring down the debt.”
Working with non-custodial parents often involves encouraging these parents to report changes that might help them qualify for Friend of the Court adjustments in their child support obligations. Changes that could justify a reduction in a parent’s support obligation include a reduction of income or new financial responsibilities to other children.
Wayne County residents who want to get help from the FNS Unit must meet several requirements. They must currently have an active Friend of the Court case involving at least one child under 21 years of age. Custodial parents must be owed more than $5,000, and they must have reason to believe the non-custodial parent has a job and the means to pay support. The non-paying parent also must have been held in contempt by the court.
When cases are approved for prosecution, a writ is issued for the arrest of the non-paying parent, but the parent is given an opportunity to turn him or herself in. Submitting to the arrest voluntarily and immediately paying past due support will result in the case being dismissed. By agreeing to a payment plan – and complying with the terms – many of the offenders have had their cases ultimately dismissed.
On the other hand, those convicted of not supporting their children could face jail or other sanctions.
Some alleged child support offenders have refused to turn themselves in. They take a more difficult path, said Neff. The FNS Unit (which includes Sheriff’s Dept. deputies and detectives as well as lawyers) has issued warrants leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 suspected offenders. One arrest involved a non-paying parent who jumped out of a window to escape, only to have deputies successfully track him following footprints in the snow.
Neff said the unit considers a number of factors before agreeing to prosecute, including the potential for violence by some child support offenders. If the non-custodial parent has a history of violence or has threatened violence, the FNS unit may not handle the case. Cases marked by a potential for violence, Neff explained, may be more appropriate for other units of the Prosecutor’s Office, including the Child and Family Abuse Bureau (C-FAB).
Experts say verification of sometimes elusive income can be produced when custodial parents report the non-paying parent has discussed buying new, big-ticket items such as big-screen TVs or taking expensive vacations. Other times, the non-custodial parent claims to be without income but slips and tells children he or she is “on the way to work.”
While Worthy cautions against seeing all non-paying parents in a completely negative light, she says some so-called deadbeat parents choose to play a drawn-out, cat-and-mouse game with the Friend of the Court’s efforts to secure payments through civil means such as garnisheed payroll checks. These non-paying parents may work one job, quit, move and get another job to dodge recovery efforts, investigators say.
The fallout from abandonment by non-paying, non-custodial parents can include emotional trauma to children, experts say. Children who may long for physical involvement and financial support from the parent who does not live in the home may also see the parent who lives in the home ripped from them. That in-home, custodial parent is taken away by the need to work backbreaking hours, prosecutors say.
“A lot of these women are working (multiple) jobs,” said Neff. “That means kids who may not have had both parents in the house now also don’t have the custodial parent there much either. I actually had one mom tell me that her kids were in counseling because of abandonment issues surrounding her need to work multiple jobs. Once we were successful in getting the non-custodial parent to make payments, the mother was at home more and the family was able to stop the counseling.”
For more information on the Felony Non-Support Unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, call (313) 224-0465.
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