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  • Casey Murray

Prosecutors seeking new ways to deal with nonpayment of child support

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

This is the second of two parts about Missouri’s dysfunctional child support system. Read Part I here. This article was published on the Columbia Missourian.

Insley Stiles is a committed father, but on paper he doesn’t look like one. He’s $32,000 behind on child support payments.

Stiles said he’s been an alcoholic for much of his life but was high-functioning and could hang onto a good, stable job for most of it. When his alcoholism finally became uncontrollable, he wasn’t working. He spent time in rehab, finding a way to quit.

“When I just moved to this place I’m at now, I was still detoxing, in fact, and I couldn’t even get a job at that point. I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking,” Stiles said. “I couldn’t think clearly; it was really bad. Like, 2-liters-of-vodka-a-day bad.”

He’s been sober for a year and a half now. He teaches karate, spends time with his six kids and works a job he really enjoys. But the time he spent getting back on his feet added up.

Stiles is one of the many Missouri parents who have found themselves lost in the child support system. Stiles has a college degree, but he’s found the system impossible to figure out. Meanwhile, he’s fallen further and further behind on payments.

To try and relieve some of the burden, Stiles has been trying to get his child support order modified. The opportunity to have the order changed comes automatically every three years, or parents can apply to have it adjusted earlier.

But when he last applied, his request was denied. He wanted to appeal, but he said there would be no way to do so without a lawyer. He can’t afford one.

“I talked to an attorney; it would cost me $1,500 up front just to get him to start doing anything. And I can’t afford that,” Stiles said.

Stiles works as a phlebotomist and senior lab technician, but after his checks are garnisheed to recoup some of his arrears, he only makes $7 or $8 an hour. That’s about 50% of his income.
“I love this job, but they take half of my paycheck before I ever see it. Half,” Stiles said. “That’s not enough to survive in today’s society.”

Disincentivizing work

Stephanie Wilkison, a former child support enforcement officer who worked cases all over the country, said, in her experience, garnishment can become an overwhelming burden for parents.

“If you’re taking half of their income, they’re just not going to work, because they can’t afford to live,” Wilkison said. “Which is what you see a lot, that people will just quit working because they’re like, ‘I can’t survive, and I might as well be on assistance where you can’t take it.’”

Stiles said there are times he’s been pushed to this point but is worried it will send his mental health spiraling again.

“It was beginning to feel, even though I love what I do ... , like, why bother? And I don’t want to get in that space again. That was a bad space,” Stiles said.

Luckily for Stiles, he’s been able to get free legal help through Fathers & Families Support Center, an organization in St. Louis that works with noncustodial parents to help people pay child support and stay involved with their kids.

He’s also lucky he hasn’t faced prosecution for his arrears.

Felony nonsupport cases can carry sentences as long as four years, and it ranked 23 out of the top 40 offenses for all new admissions in the Missouri prison system for the 2020 fiscal year.

The average length of time people spent incarcerated on child support charges in Missouri in 2017 was 341 days.

‘An endless cycle’

Scott Altman, a family law expert at the University of Southern California, said that, based on research, any jail time for longer than a day will not help encourage noncustodial parents to pay child support.

“Very brief jail stays just overnight were often effective in encouraging payment, but states that use more punitive steps, periods of time of weeks or months in jail, typically it backfired,” Altman said. “The reason that it backfired was that if you put somebody in jail, they tend to lose their job.”

The fact that Stiles has not been prosecuted represents a changing child support system.

The number of people in Missouri being sentenced for criminal child support nonpayment has been steadily declining, from 715 people in 2010 to 220 people in 2019.

The decline is partly due to prosecutors who are trying to change the way they enforce nonpayment and partly due to reliance on alternative child support courts.

St. Louis, Boone and Clay counties are among those that have an alternative child support court that focuses on directing noncustodial parents to services that could help them start paying child support.

In Boone County, child support court is fairly new. Judge Kimberly Shaw started it in 2019 after defending clients being tried for nonpayment as a lawyer.

“It just seemed like it was an endless cycle for them. If they weren’t paying and they didn’t have the resources to help them to get to that point, the amount just increased,” Shaw said. “A lot of times, if they were not paying child support, they were not visiting the child. That was a big issue for me.”

Research has shown that if parents are paying child support, they are more likely to see the child — both because the custodial parent is more likely to grant visitation and because the noncustodial parent doesn’t face shame or arrest for not contributing financially.

Powerhouse Community Development Corporation is the organization in Columbia that works with Shaw to provide services for noncustodial parents.

When someone is entered into the program, Powerhouse staff analyzes their needs and develops a personalized plan to address whatever issues are at play. This could mean anything from parenting courses to job counseling to drug therapy. Data from both Powerhouse and Fathers & Families suggest this approach can be successful.

Tim Fugate, manager of the Columbia office for Powerhouse, said Boone County is on the front end of an approach that could be helpful across the state.

“Boone County is, I think, very cutting edge on allowing us to work with those clients. You know, I live in another county, and I don’t believe that there they are as forgiving,” Fugate said. “I would love to take this program to other places.”

Fugate highlights one of the issues in child support reform: Many of the judicial consequences for child support nonpayment are pushed by individual judges or prosecutors.

“Whether it’s the judge, whether it’s the child support prosecutor, I think that there’s just a big disconnect,” Fugate said.

That’s reflected in county-by-county data on child support prosecution. Some counties still prosecute dozens of men on nonpayment, while some prosecute almost none. Other counties prosecute but almost exclusively recommend people for probation or special services, as in Boone County.

And, Fugate said, most people find Powerhouse’s services when they are already in trouble with the law. The next step would be to start working with them at the beginning of their cases.

Start on Day One

Wilkison said Washington state has the most advanced child support department in the country.

Sharon Redmond, the director of the division of child support in Washington, said it tries to start enforcement on Day One.

“What we have been working really hard on in the state of Washington is to establish that relationship with the parents early on,” Redmond said. “Once you have a relationship and a trust factor, then you can more readily have conversations about how to get and receive payments.”

She said it’s important that the department keeps listening to parents as situations change.
“Circumstances may have changed, and/or a pandemic might have occurred,” Redmond said.

“When those kinds of circumstances come up, as an agency, we need to have kind of a listening ear about what those circumstances are and how can we best create an opportunity for consistent family payments to that family.”

Redmond said this helps form a stable family dynamic for kids where both parents are involved.
“It’s more important to make sure that you’re having conversations, recognizing the circumstances of both parents and then looking to see how you can achieve an outcome of getting steady, consistent payments,” Redmond said. “Research has shown that one of the most important things to do for the children is to get steady payments.”

One frequently cited study found that steady child support had a positive impact on children’s cognitive test scores. Other studies suggest significant benefits.

Redmond said the department still uses methods of enforcement like revoking a license, but it tries to use them as a way to make contact with the noncustodial parent. The department also does send some individuals to jail or prison for nonpayment, but she said it’s rare.

“One doesn’t want to avail themselves of those types of remedies unless that person has truly got the means to pay and they’re just choosing not to do it,” Redmond said. “Because it really is a coercive measure of enforcement. And so a lot of scrutiny is placed upon the case and on ensuring that that person is willfully not paying rather than having an incapacity to pay.”
Of course, as demonstrated by the differences in prosecution across Missouri, it takes buy-in. Redmond said the department couldn’t make its model work without support.

“It takes an entire community, really,” Redmond said. “And I would never claim that we do this alone by any means. I have to give credit to all our partners, including the legislature, for supporting us in moving along this evolution.”

Washington has about 310,000 child support cases, about 5,000 more than in Missouri, but Washington has about 340 more caseworkers. To change the child support system will require the support of legislators, judges and prosecutors in addition to the department itself.

When Stiles started getting help from Fathers & Families, it changed his relationship with child support. He said after trying to handle his arrears on his own, he felt helpless.

“I got really depressed about the whole thing,” Stiles said. “They don’t care. They’re like this, this heartless machine state.”

But the organization took the time to talk to him, and now he’s getting back on track.

“Someone is actually out there that cares and is willing and able to help — it’s huge,” Stiles said. “I feel so much better about getting up and going to work every morning.”
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