Child Support Debt Creates Obstacles to Stability

By Brian Davis

     “It sure does not pay to go back to work for some of the men in the shelter who have these huge child support debts,” one homeless shelter director said. Michael Gibbs who pays child support was not sure that the motive of the local child support agency was to help children as much just to collect funds.

     Mary Denihan, Cuyahoga County Child Support Enforcement Public Information officer, said “We are always looking at the best interest of the child. The child needs to eat and needs to have a roof over their head.” She said they work with the parent who has custody of the child and those without custody who pays the support, but their primary concern is for the health and welfare of the children. Her agency has a huge concern for homeless people, and characterized the problems associated with homeless people and child support as “overwhelming and almost insurmountable.”

     For the last 20 years, child support enforcement activities have become a vital part of the welfare system in the United States. To offset the huge costs the states and federal government spends on Aid to Dependent Children (now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), states have received broad powers to enforce support orders. The biggest change took place in 1998 in Ohio, when mandatory paternity was established and enforcement was expanded. The 1998 law allowed state licenses (medical, law, and social work licenses) to be held until the individual comes into compliance with a support order. They can put liens on property and seize property.

     Denihan said that they would do more seizures if they had space to keep cars, boats and other items. The County can even collect on the debt from a person’s estate after their death.

     Some of the problems associated with homeless people in the child support system include a lack of address, which makes it difficult to collect from non-custodial parents and pay the custodial parents. Denihan said that the key is that homeless people come in and work with CSEA so that they do not develop this huge debt. Those homeless who do not have an income still must pay a minimum of $50 per month. Denihan urged homeless service providers especially those who work with men to send their clients into the CSEA office if they work with men who are non-custodial parents.

     For women with children who happen to be homeless and receive child support, the agency has a hard time issuing a check to people without an address. In the past CSEA could cut a check while a mother waited. The state has taken over the role of sending out checks, which makes it more difficult for the local agency to work with homeless families. Also, if a parent receives cash assistance from Human Services that amount is subtracted from their support check. So if a woman receives $250 in welfare and her former spouse pays $200 for child support, the mother gets $196 from the CSEA office and $54 from the welfare department.

     Gibbs said that it was positive to go after dead beat dads, but he feels the system really hurts those trying to live up to their obligations. He has seen a high turnover among caseworkers, and he says, “everyone seems to pass the buck.” He definitely saw a lot of people who felt that it was not worth working while he was homeless. Gibbs feels that there should be a mediated settlement over what the child needs instead of a formula allocation ordered from an outside entity. “I think fathers would be more willing to comply if they had more say in the process,” Gibbs said.

     Recently, Gibbs got a second job to help pay his support requirements, and CSEA sent notification to his employer that he must pay the same amount he was paying with his full time job. This meant that he got a second job to pick up extra cash, and was told he had to double his payments to CSEA. Denihan said that this had to be an error in the system, and said he should contact his worker to adjust the order. Denihan guaranteed help to those who keep their workers informed about their status.

     Denihan acknowledged that the Child Support Enforcement Agency is not forgiving of mistakes, and has become more successful at collecting from those attempting to dodge their obligations. They recently introduced a wanted poster for those with the most debt to the child support, which has led to more exposure of the what the county is calling “dead beat parents.” Denihan said that her agency has one of the better staff retention rates in the County.

     The County is working with the Urban League to help with employment barriers for non-custodial parents. They try to help homeless people with referrals to job centers, but do not have much they can offer those without a job or a house. Any derivation of the formula developed by CSEA has to come from a court. They will help men establish paternity if there is a question, and they attempt to protect the parents from being exploited by an angry spouse. “It is no longer acceptable to financially abandon your family,” according to Denihan.

     A homeless person has huge barriers to overcome with regard to housing, finding a job, and rebuilding a credit history, but one of the often overlooked obstacles is getting back into compliance with their child support. They often need social workers and or legal assistance to navigate through this complicated system. One of the goals of Denihan and the workers at CSEA is to adjust the maxim "the only thing sure in life is death and taxes" to include child support.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #43, July-August 2000