By LeeAnn Cain / Staff Writer
Child support collections in the Tri-County have seen minimal improvement over the past year, according to statistics released by by the Kids Count Data Center and Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Collection rates remain below 50 percent for Knox and Whitley counties, and hovers just at 50 percent in Laurel County.
According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the county with the lowest rate was Whitley County, which has had chronic problems with child support collection. The rate for Whitley County was 44.7 percent. According to Whitley County Attorney Bob Hammons, Whitley County is number 118 out of 120 counties in Kentucky.
The total amount of money collected from Whitley County last year was approximately $2.5 million.
Child support collection in Knox County hovers at approximately 49.8 percent, according to numbers from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. It hasn’t changed significantly over the past year. Total collections from Knox County amount to approximately $2.6 million.
The best in the Tri-County area for child support collections is, statistically, Laurel County. Its rate is at 50.5 percent, and according to County Attorney Jodi Albright, this number has gone up by 4.9 percent in the 2012-2013 calendar year. Albright also noted that they were ranked 64 out of 120 in the state last week, although rankings change week to week.
“This is the first year we’ve ever collected more than $5 million in total,” Albright said.
According to statistics released from the Kids Count Data Center, the Tri-County remains on the lower end of collections in the state. Compared to the range of 44-50 percent within the Tri-County area, the lowest counties ranged from 27-40 percent and the highest from 71-73 percent.
The three lowest counties were Lee County (27 percent), Owsley County (39 percent), and Jackson County (40 percent).
The three highest counties were Allen County (73 percent), along with Crittenden and Morgan counties (72 percent).
The Tri-County is in a region of Kentucky known as the Eastern Coal Field Region, according to the University of Kentucky Geological Survey. Jackson, Lee, and Owsley counties are all in this region as well. Morgan County is in the region, but numbers generally hover in the 40s and 50s range in percentage. While the Tri-County is within this average, the region is known to be economically troubled, which the county attorneys agree is a major factor in low child support collection rates.
Strategies for child support collection
There are actions that can be taken against parents who fail to pay child support. Tax returns may be intercepted, wages can be garnished and passports can be denied. Also, driver’s, professional, or hunting and fishing licenses can be revoked or denied and unemployment benefits can be withheld. Court actions may also be taken to place those who do not pay child support in jail. However, each county has its own area of focus when collecting child support.
According to Hammons, those who don’t pay their child support can face a bench warrant, which Hammons said “will never go away.” Hammons said that “jail time seems most effective,” and so he focuses on finding those who aren’t paying child support and taking them to court. Hammons finds that most people are unwilling to return to jail and instead pay their child support. When jailed, a parent’s sentence may also require payment toward what they owe on child support.
Laurel County is a little different.
“We try everything,” Albright said of methods for collecting child support. “What will work on one won’t work on the other.” Albright noted that they can also revoke CDLs, but he added that he wouldn’t want to take away the income needed to pay child support.
Albright also said that Commonwealth Attorney Jackie Steele helps with the prosecution of those charged with flagrant non-support. Albright said that Laurel County also had an amnesty program to encourage the collection of child support.
“If they have a warrant, they will not be arrested when they pay, but they have to pay a certain sum,” Albright said.
Hammons said that most of Whitley County’s problems with child support collection involve challenges with locating those guilty of not paying child support. Hammons noted that Whitley County has particular difficulty because it borders Tennessee, and many people will leave the state in an attempt to avoid child support payments.
“Our main problem is people who are unemployed and not on government assistance,” Hammons said.
The amount paid for child support depends on numbers determined by the state based on income. Hammons said that expenses don’t matter — people have an obligation to put their children first.
“I’ve been given every reason,” he said. Hammons said finding those who evade child support payments can be a daunting task, noting that they track other counties for arrests unrelated to non-support.
“It’s not just collection in Whitley County. It’s also out-of-state for children living in Whitley,” Hammons said. Even if the non-custodial parent leaves the state, he or she still has to pay child-support for a child living in Whitley County. Hammons noted that these cases are particularly time-consuming.
Like Whitley County, many people wanted for failure to pay child support in Laurel County tend to be evasive.
“A lot of these people are transient,” Albright said. “We can’t find them to get it…it’s like herding cats. It’s hard to keep up with so many cases.” However, Albright noted they did go after these absent parents and said nearly all flagrant non-supporters are eventually found.
“The state shouldn’t be raising someone else’s child,” Albright said.
Something that Tri-County officials agree on is that unemployment, underemployment, and low wages can leave non-custodial parents without enough income to pay child support and bills. Sometimes, Albright said, non-custodial parents can quit their jobs or take lower-paying jobs to avoid payments, although this is less common.
“Most people do not willfully avoid paying child support,” Knox County Attorney Gilbert Holland said. “We do have several who would love to pay child support but cannot find a job that pays enough.”
Holland said that without factories or coal mines, people can barely afford to support themselves. He believes that the solution to child support delinquency lies in better economic opportunities that allow people enough money to pay their bills and their child support.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates — an independent organization that is dedicated to improving child well-being across the state — believes that tackling the problem of child support in the Commonwealth begins with tackling other problems such as poverty and unemployment.
“You can’t ignore recession and rising unemployment. You can’t separate that from child support,” Brooks said. “This is the first time that more than one in four kids are living in poverty. It shouldn’t surprise us that non-custodial parents aren’t paying child support.”
He added that a lack of child support payments went beyond “individuals being irresponsible.” Brooks said that Kentucky Youth Advocates worked to “ensure kids and families get the child support they deserve” and stated that in order to do that, the Commonwealth had to focus on more than just prosecuting non-paying parents.
“Until we tackle the issue of poverty, we can’t tackle the issue of non-payment,” Brooks said. “We don’t need to let that non-custodial parent off the hook, but we need to support them to help them pay their child support.”
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS
The collection of delinquent child support payments is a process that depends on how many payments have been missed, how much is owed, and the locations of parents and children. According to Whitley County Attorney Bob Hammons, skipping child support payments becomes a serious crime when the missed payments amount to $1,000 but Hammons goes after people when people get two months behind. He also said that if the sum is substantial, child support can be paid in installments.
—The process begins with a mandatory referral when the custodial parent files for public assistance or an application filled out by the custodial parent. According to Gerry Smith, an office manager with the Laurel County Attorney’s Office, the parent is asked to come in so information can be collected and a case can be opened.
—Once the case has been generated, Smith said that an order to pay child support is established and courts, lawyers involved in the case and the non-custodial parent are notified of the date in which the collections are to begin. After that, enforcement begins if the non-custodial parent does not pay his or her child support.
—Child support is paid to the Kentucky Child Support Enforcement office, and from there custodial parents receive the payments. Because payments are indirect, mailed payments must clearly list the name and Social Security number or IV-D number of the noncustodial parent.