Our Allegheny County based law firm has known for quite some time that the courts impose severe penalties for non-payment of a child support or spousal support obligation. The courts in Western Pennsylvania routinely impose a host of sanctions against delinquent payors, which included garnishment of wages, restriction of driving privileges, and incarceration.
The system works as intended: it scares alleged “deadbeat” payors into making payments. While the fear factor still exists, courts in Western Pennsylvania are taking a more realistic approach when it comes to payors who fail to make payments because of the recent loss of employment. The courts are encouraging vocational training and guidance, while holding firmly in place the real threat of incarceration for delinquent payment of a support obligation.
When Brian Scott first appeared before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court’s Family Division at age 17, he was given two options: Make child support payments or go to jail.
“I was furious,” said the Hill District man, now age 24. “I didn’t know anything about child support.”
After spending a few days in jail, he began to make payments, but now he’s unemployed and can’t pay support for his three children; ages 8, 7 and 4. This time, rather than issuing a jail sentence, the court referred him to job training.
Allegheny County’s rate of collecting current child support payments has ranked first for the past three years in a comparison of about 20 similarly sized urban areas by Policy Studies, a Colorado consulting firm specializing in child support matters. The court’s Family Division collected 80 percent of on-time payments in the 2009 fiscal year, running from October 2008 to September 2009, up from 75 percent in fiscal 2007.
Judges and other officials credit efforts in recent years to set more realistic payments for parents and to refer those who need help to job training and other support programs.
“If you don’t have a game plan, they’re going to give you a hard time,” said Scott, who expects to begin making payments again soon. “If you’re willing to work, they’ll work with you.”
Allegheny County court handles 46,500 cases. Seattle, with nearly the same caseload as Allegheny County, collects 66 percent of on-time payments, according to the Policy Studies rankings. Prince Georges County, Md., also with roughly the same caseload, has a 68 percent collection rate.
“We probably, anecdotally, think we’re the best in the nation,” said Patrick Quinn, administrator of the Family Division’s adult section.
Locally, Butler County brought in 87.2 percent of payments last year and handles 4,135 cases; Westmoreland County’s rate is 84.7 percent, and its caseload is 10,585. Collections can be tougher in urban jurisdictions, though, because more parents are unemployed or unmarried, said Brian Laatsch, a senior consultant at Policy Studies. Urban jurisdictions are defined in the Policy Studies report as those with 30,000 or more cases.
During fiscal 2009, the Allegheny County Family Division collected $130.8 million in current child support payments. The $25.7 million collected in past-due payments that year put the county second in the most recent Policy Studies rankings for past-due collections.
“The court has recently been more interested in setting an order that is realistic to pay,” said Judge Kathleen Mulligan of the Family Division. “By the same token, we’re going to be stricter enforcing that.”
The division’s enforcement team tries to get parents into jobs or place them in career-training programs with the goal of getting them to pay child support. When the enforcement team and domestic relations officers are not able to get payments, the case goes before a judge.
“The majority of cases never make it to a judge because our staff teams are set up to find a plan that works,” said Judge David Wecht, administrative judge of the Family Division. “In a way, when it goes to a judge, there’s been a failure.”
Nonpayment can result in jail time, the loss of a driver’s license or hunting and fishing licenses, passport denials, tax refund interceptions, liens on property, interceptions of federal payments like Social Security and student loans. Last year, 345 people went to jail in Allegheny County for failing to pay child support; so far this year, the number is 227.
Parents in a financial bind are encouraged to file for modifications rather than miss making payments altogether.
Monthly support payments are based on both parents’ incomes and state guidelines. Last year, the average annual amount collected for each case was $3,839, up from $3,447 in 2008.
Allegheny County’s Family Division now works with agencies that sponsor programs for noncustodial fathers to help them find jobs and stay out of the “underground” economy, where pay goes unreported.
“We were never in the job business before and now we are, extensively,” Quinn said.
“Work is the key. There’s no point sitting in jail because you can’t pay your support.”
The Father’s Program at the Hill House Association in the Hill District accepts referrals from the Family Division, and helps young, mostly noncustodial fathers such as Scott prepare for and secure jobs.
“In all honesty, a lot of the guys have a fear of the system,” said Mike Rogers, the program’s co-coordinator, adding the court sets realistic payments for the most part. “It’s justified terror, I guess. They really lock people up at the drop of a dime down there.”
Mulligan said, “I like to think the word on the street is you can’t get away with not paying your child support.”
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