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Order for support

Contempt hearings held for parents not fulfilling financial obligations

Contempt hearings held for parents not fulfilling financial obligations

March 26, 2006|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.

Delinquent on child support payments he was ordered to make to the six children he has to five women, a 39-year-old man stood before Franklin County Judge John R. Walker last week for a support contempt hearing.

Leaning on a podium in front of the bench, he said he had hurt his back at his last place of employment and was in "a lot of pain right now."

Walker asked him if he was more comfortable standing up or lying down because "out at jail, you can lay down." Walker gave the man a 60-day suspended sentence and told him to show up April 4 with a physician's letter verifying he cannot work, or he would be jailed.

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"Have you ever thought of a vasectomy?" Walker asked the man. "The way you're going, you're going to have to work three shifts to support all the children you have."

Support contempt hearings are held Tuesday afternoons for those who have fallen a month or more behind in their payments.

This day, more than 30 names were on the list with a staff attorney for Franklin County's Domestic Relations Department reading off how far in arrears each was and the last time they made a payment.

Walker did not jail anyone last week, but did hand out a few suspended sentences. In several cases, people came up with some money before their hearings to avoid being locked up. One of those was an unemployed man who came in with $250.

Walker told the man he had to come back April 4 with employment search forms demonstrating he had looked for a job.

"The defendant shall not go to the mall and hit every store in the mall," Walker said as part of his order.

The term "deadbeat dads" did not fit all, as a number of those in arrears were women. Those facing hearings ranged from professionals to inmates and from middle aged to 15 years old, with the amounts owed ranging from a few dollars to $14,000.

"You fathered a kid for better or for worse," Walker told a teenage boy. The $20 a week in child support the boy was supposed to pay "isn't going to cover the cost of formula and diapers," Walker told him.

Domestic Relations Director Teresa Anthony said that about 20 percent of those who pay child support are delinquent at one time or another.

In 2005, her office was in charge of enforcing more than 5,000 support orders with some individuals, such as the man with six children, having multiple support orders.

By and large, those required to make payments do so regularly and do not end up being taken before a judge, she said. Of the $18,360,029 in collections made last year, $354,933 were related to court actions, Anthony said.

There were 2,395 support cases listed for court in 2005, but Anthony said that includes a number of cases re-listed more than once. In 403 cases, the people in arrears made payments totaling more than $249,000 before their court dates and had their names pulled from the list.

Domestic Relations figures showed 371 bench warrants were issued for people who failed to show up for court, and 59 cases resulted in someone going to jail. Those who ended up in jail for nonsupport paid $35,117 toward what they owed to get out, Anthony said.

Another $70,091 was collected when the defendants appeared in court, she said.

"We used to call it magic money," Anthony said.

Many of those who end up in court are uneducated, unskilled and frequently unemployed, Anthony said. Problems with alcohol or drug abuse are not uncommon among those called before a judge, she said.

"If everybody was responsible, we wouldn't be here," Anthony said.

For someone making $7 or $8 an hour, supporting themselves is difficult enough without having to make support payments as well, Anthony said. The latest state guidelines, she said, do allow those with very low incomes to keep a "self-support reserve" of at least $748 per month.

Those with support orders are not just contributing toward the food, shelter and clothing of their children, Anthony said. Day-care costs, health insurance and other expenses also are considered, Anthony said. Wages, IRS refunds, workers' compensation and other sources of income can be attached to fulfill the financial obligations of these parents, she said.

Hard-luck stories were not getting much sympathy from Walker on Tuesday. An attorney related that one woman, who owed less than $100, was out of work and facing criminal charges.

"That's a sob story, but I don't shed any tears," Walker said. "She put herself in this position with some poor decision-making."

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