Cracking Down on Millions in Back Child Support
Back child support is an issue parents across the commonwealth are fighting for everyday. Here in central Virginia, families in Charlottesville and Albemarle County are owed $45.7 million in back child support. The Department of Child Support Enforcement is cashing in on collections by cracking down.
To get a better idea of who owes all that money, we sat down with Mary Wilson, the district manager for the Division of Child Support Enforcement. Wilson says it comes from a combination of people – those who are paying what they can, those who have fallen on hard times and just don't have it, and those who have no intention of paying up and are making every effort to dodge the system. The department is on the hunt to find the ones dodging the system.
"There's a difference between being poor - and wanting to do what you need to do to support your child - and not being able to, and what I call 'duckin' and dodging.'" Wilson said.
In Albemarle, families are owed a whopping $15.7 million, and the number is even higher in Charlottesville at $29.9 million.
Wilson said, "This includes everything that's owed, whether it's for children who have already emancipated, or children that are minors needing support on a monthly basis."
Wilson says they deal with roughly 5,000 cases at any one time but she would not identify any individuals due to confidentiality issues. Nor would she say what percentage of those parents have fallen on hard times or ran to evade the system.
Wilson said, "Sometimes we know where those are, we find them today, we find them for a week, we're able to get a little bit of money and then they go underground again."
Family law attorney Laura Blair Butler deals with child support cases. She says while negligence is sometimes a factor, another big contributor is failure to understand the system.
"Maybe your obligation was for two children and one child has reached the age where child support is no longer obligated - or custody has changed, or a job has changed. Through no fault of your own income has decreased. That is going to require to go into court and ask for a modification, and it needs to be brought in immediately," she stated.
Butler says it is important for clients to go through the Department of Child Support Enforcement, because of its relationship with the court system, but also for its resources.
Butler said, "In order to collect child support, one of the difficulties is finding the party that's obligated. It can be tremendously difficult if they are in a situation where their Social Security [number] is not being used on a regular basis, if it's somebody that's not filing taxes."
Wilson says evaders will often move, get paid under the table and put bills in other people's names.
When asked how they find these people, Wilson responded, "It's difficult. We do have the ability with our system to match and see if they have a cell phone, if they have power and those kinds of utilities in their name. We have power where we can go and look for assets - Do they have a vehicle? Do they have land? Do they have a boat?"
The department can also suspend a driver's license, freeze bank accounts, go after retirement funds, file liens or even deny passports. On top of that, it has partnerships with other states and countries.
"You can't move around among states to forget child support." Wilson stated. "We have people that are in Europe, that are in Israel, some in Mexico, some in Canada."
Wilson says the last resort is incarceration, but most often working with the non-custodial parents pays off. "We want to try and tell them, this is what you owe right now, pay this little bit off. Stay current, you'll do better."
Many people who owe want to do the right thing, but aren't able to pay up.
Wilson said, "You look at the amount of manufacturing jobs that this area has lost, it is significant and they've been replaced somewhat, but only with service jobs and they don't have benefits."
Butler stated, "And sometimes I think people get very discouraged, so they're like, 'there is no way I can pay this', and you can keep your head in the sand."
Child support enforcement partners with the Workforce Center to help provide employment and create payment plans.
There is also the Intensive Case Monitoring Program (ICMP), where instead of going to jail, a judge could order a person into ICMP to identify personal barriers and get connected with the right resources.
"Sometimes that might be a skill set - going to CATEC, PVCC - it may be doing some drug program because there is substance abuse issue," Wilson stated.
She says out of all the work it does to help both custodial and non-custodial parents, the true beneficiary is the children.
Statewide child support enforcement collected $657 million in fiscal year 2012. The Charlottesville District, which includes the city and nine surrounding counties, collected nearly $23 million in child support.
This past January alone, less than $1 million was collected in Charlottesville and Albemarle; 89 percent of that money came from wage withholding.
Click here for more information on child support from the Virginia Department of Social Services.
Click here for the Virginia Child Support Payment Solutions Center.