When the single mother wasn’t receiving child support payments, she’d swipe her credit card to pay for unexpected expenses and worry about how to pay the bill later.
But after the father of her 3-year-old daughter was arrested and released from jail in May, Brittany Patrick starting receiving $160 per month in child support for the first time since November 2011. And she’ll soon get the $3,000 in cash he used to bond out of jail.
The Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office has been making a new push to find and arrest parents who aren’t paying the child support they owe. After hiring a new investigator and requiring more meetings with caseworkers, the prosecutor’s office has been able to reduce the percentage of people who aren’t making payments.
About one-third of parents are still not current on their child support payments, however, and more than $18.2 million is owed to parents raising children. But the new efforts to track down parents with pending warrants, arrest them and get them to start paying is already making a difference, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.
GETTING PEOPLE TO PAY
Not paying: When parents aren’t paying their child support, the prosecutor’s office can take three steps. The first is to file a civil warrant that allows police to arrest people and bring them to court. After that, prosecutors can file felony charges and get a criminal arrest warrant. The felony charge carries stiffer penalties if the amount tops $10,000.
New push: The prosecutor’s office hired an investigator, who is working exclusively to find parents with outstanding warrants and arrest them. The investigator has helped police find and arrest 33 people who haven’t been making child support payments.
Start paying: The bond money the person pays to get out of jail goes directly to the family who hasn’t been receiving child support payments. The prosecutor works to set up probation for the nonpaying parent with a condition that the parent make regular support payments. Parents who violate that probation can be arrested again.
Once they’ve been arrested, the prosecutor’s office works to get parents who don’t pay sentenced to probation, which requires they make regular payments to support their kids. The court also can take their income tax returns or garnish their wages, Cooper said.
Child support investigator Troy DeHart, a former sheriff’s deputy and county commissioner, has helped police find and arrest 33 people since April, and the money from bonds they pay to get out of jail goes directly to the families that are owed child support.
The number of people not paying child support payments has decreased by 7 percentage points this year, and parents not paying on overdue amounts has dropped 4 percentage points.
Patrick had been attending college after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps while also taking care of her daughter, Kinley. The military paid for her school and also provided a $1,100 per month stipend for living expenses. But that money was hard to stretch when her daughter was outgrowing clothes or the heating bill went up during the winter. Patrick was receiving food stamps and Medicaid for her daughter, but when living costs were more than $1,100, she’d use her credit card to cover the bill and started building up a balance.
By the time the prosecutor’s office arrested the father of her child on a charge of nonsupport of a dependent, he owed more than $6,000. After the arrest, he started making regular payments, but his court case hasn’t been resolved.
“I haven’t been able to buy my necessities in life. My daughter, that’s who I have to make sure has things. It would have been nice to pay as he was supposed to, to maybe go out and get myself a new eyeliner or new pair of shoes,” she said.
Since Patrick has started receiving the monthly $160 payments, she hasn’t had to fall back on her credit card. She’s starting to make payments on the balance and recently moved to North Carolina to start a new job.
“It will probably take me a year or two to pay it off, but now that he is paying and that money is there for her, I don’t rely on my credit cards any more,” she said.
Patrick’s case is the kind he wants to target to get parents the money they’re owed and help them no longer need federal aid programs, Cooper said.
The prosecutor’s office can file a nonsupport charge whenever a parent is not paying child support payments but the court determines they have the ability to pay, child support division deputy prosecutor Lori Prince said. Typically the prosecutor waits until that amount hits a few thousand dollars before filing the Class D felony charge; and if the overdue amount tops $10,000, the charge is a Class C felony, which carries a higher fine and longer possible prison sentence, she said.
On average in Johnson County, the overdue balance per parent is more than $4,500, Prince said.
The court issues an arrest warrant, but if the person has moved, finding them becomes more difficult. That’s why Cooper hired DeHart this year to focus solely on child support cases and track down where those parents have gone.
He’s a former Johnson County sheriff’s deputy and has experience doing investigations and working with police. Federal grant funds for child support workers pay for two-thirds of his $40,000 salary.
DeHart wouldn’t talk about specific methods he uses to find people; but when he gets a tip or a lead, he can contact other police in the area and get their help. For example, he has gone to Indianapolis and teamed up with city police to visit a home where one father might have moved, he said.
“These guys just kind of disappear like a vapor. One person can take me 40 to 50 man-hours,” DeHart said.
People with warrants may be caught if police stop them for a traffic violation, but otherwise a person who has moved out of the area could avoid police for years, DeHart said. Other police departments often are willing to help if a person DeHart is looking for has other criminal warrants, he said.
Bond goes to parent
Once arrested, they’ll be taken to jail and have a cash bond, which means they have to pay the full amount in order to get out. That bond payment, which typically is $3,000 for a nonsupport charge, goes directly to the parent with the child who is owed money.
“It is amazing how some of these folks who can’t pay and haven’t been paying suddenly come up with thousands of dollars of bond money,” Cooper said.
The goal in prosecuting criminal child support cases isn’t to get the parent put in jail but instead put in place probation terms that include making on-time payments, Cooper said. The person can continue to work and has to make the payments or else they can be arrested again and sent to jail for a probation violation.
“We find them, we get them back to paying, and usually there is a large lump sum,” Cooper said.
He said the court also can garnish wages and take income tax refunds.
The prosecutor’s office also is conducting more checkup hearings with parents to make sure they are paying on time and filing more civil warrants for debts owed and felony charges, Prince said.
The new efforts have reduced the number of people not paying. At the end of June, the prosecutor’s office had collected about $3.6 million in child support payments that weren’t being paid. That number was on pace to match the $7.1 million collected in 2012, but Prince expects collections in the second half of the year will be more partly due to the arrests being made by DeHart.