‘All we want is a little help’: Inside child support court

Editor’s note: Editor Sara Clifford observed two-and-a-half hours of civil court hearings on Dec. 15. All of them were cases in which parents were accused of violating their child support orders. These are the stories that two of the accused told about why they haven’t been paying according to the arrangements the court set for them, and the stories guardians and attorneys gave about how late or absent payments are affecting children and the adults who are caring for them. Information came from in-court testimony and court files.

Josh Barton rests his head on his fingertips and closes his eyes, waiting for the judge to enter.

He has sat in the defendant’s chair before. This time, it’s because the mother of his children needs more support from him than what she’s getting.

Barton says he doesn’t have it to give.

Since getting placed on house arrest in Lawrence County in October, Barton, 40, has gotten a job through Community Corrections and a temp agency. He works 40 hours a week on the night shift at a metal stamping company in Bedford, making $11.40 an hour.

His child support obligation of $130 a week gets taken out of his paycheck automatically, leaving him about $800 a month to live on, with rent and cellphone bills yet to pay and food to buy. While on house arrest, he’s been living in a house his mother owns in Bedford, working off the $300 in rent she’s due by doing handyman work for her.

His children live in Wisconsin. Their mother works 40 hours a week for the state’s transportation department, making $16.90 an hour. She pays for medical, dental and vision insurance; for childcare before and after school because of her work schedule; for other household bills, too.

Before he got arrested last time and got this job, Barton’s payments had been $10 here, $20 there, sometimes $100, sometimes $500, said Brown County Deputy Prosecutor Tracey Yeager Stogsdill. In October, he was charged with being in contempt of court, accused of violating the payment agreement.

In November, Barton was among 17 people whom the court charged with felonies, alleging that they were thousands behind in their support payments and were not making good-faith efforts to comply. Barton owed $10,240 at that time, the prosecutor’s paperwork said.

The day his name hit the paper, Barton came to the court office to tell them of his new job and the automatic deductions.

But those deductions, and the job, were to end in December, when the temp assignment ceased.

Barton asked the court for another chance. He said he wants to keep working; he doesn’t want to go to jail for violating court orders. He called being on home detention “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” He said it’s helped get his life on track.

“Anything that would help my children, I’m all for. Putting me in jail doesn’t help me at all,” he said.

“I’m really proud of myself. I’m doing the best I’ve ever done. I’d hate for someone to kick me while I’m down.”

The mother’s attorney, Jason Salerno, argued that if anything, Barton should be paying more in support, not less, as Barton had argued.

Yeager Stogsdill agreed. She asked Magistrate Frank Nardi to increase his obligation to $183 per week, minimum.

Barton leaned back in his chair. He looked at the ceiling for a long time while Nardi talked.

Yeager Stogsdill asked why he had paid nothing from June to October. He told the court about the four times he was hospitalized for depression; when he was “technically homeless” and couldn’t afford drugs or alcohol, but was drinking “as much as I could get” from friends, before Lawrence County hauled him back to court for violating his probation on a drug possession charge.

Nardi agreed to give him one more chance to keep paying and set another hearing for March 16.

If he doesn’t keep up, he warned, Barton can expect a jail sentence.

Barton left. David Cooney took his place.

He’d been waiting his turn through several other cases that morning. Before the judge had entered, in the tone of a disappointed parent, Yeager Stogsdill had peppered him with questions about why he’d been off his payment schedule.

He thought he had paid up through September. He had just made another payment this morning, he said.

“Of all people we deal with, he knows better than to fall off of compliance,” Yeager Stogsdill said.

Cooney, 44, is the father in two separate cases that would be dealt with that morning. He also has one other case in Brown County and at least one in another county, Yeager Stogsdill said.

He told the court that he is living with the children and mother involved in one of them. He was behind $5,127.30 in their support.

Cooney and Yeager Stogsdill both said that they don’t believe that mother wants that back support to be paid. Yet, she hadn’t signed paperwork to forgive the debt to the state, so Yeager Stogsdill was obligated to pursue it.

Cooney was ordered to pay $10 a week to help clear it.

The other party to Cooney’s next case took her seat next to Yeager Stogsdill. She is not his child’s mother, but the custodial grandmother, who’s been coming to hearings just like this for nine years.

She told the court that she feels like she’s getting nowhere.

“He is court-ordered to pay every week. (Child) is fed every week. That’s money that we’ve already spent,” the grandmother said.

“I think after nine years, I’ve gone above and beyond. It’s time to hold him in contempt. (Child’s mother) has been held in contempt.”

“I want him jailed.”

She has heard excuse after excuse of why he can’t pay his $39 a week. He’s also required to pay $11 a week toward his unpaid support debt of about $7,300. Each time a threat of court action is made, he pays, she said.

“(Child) is clothed whether David pays or not. (Child) has shoes on her feet whether David pays or not. … All we want is a little help from the parent. … I want some kind of justice,” she said.

Attorneys can file what’s called a Lambert petition to stop unpaid support from piling up for the time a person is in jail. Later that day, public defender Jacob Moore would ask for one of those for a shackled man in a pink-striped jumpsuit.

“Mr. Cooney going to jail would not put any child support in your pocket,” said Moore, who is also Cooney’s attorney.

“Right, but I’ll understand why I’m not getting any,” the grandmother said.

Cooney offered her some answers. Work has been slow this time of year, he said. With his criminal record, his options are few. He had been working at a greenhouse. He’s been doing drywalling lately. He’s about to start a big project, but his employer doesn’t have him set up to have child support taken directly out of his check, which he would prefer.

He’s been in recovery two-and-a-half years. He doesn’t believe he’s “at that point as a person” to be able to juggle all his financial obligations responsibly on his own.

For a long time, he didn’t pay anyone but his drug dealer, he said.

The last two years, “I’ve been digging myself out of a crater.”

He’s in classes now to try to kick his substance abuse, and he’s taking the batterer’s intervention program. He teaches Narcotics Anonymous at the jail every Wednesday. His family just moved into a new place, and he’s the caretaker for two of his children daily.

“I’m doing a lot of good things in my life,” he said.

“I can see her point. I really can,” he said about his child’s grandmother. “But if I would have ever been locked up for this case, it would have been long before now. And I kind of wish I would have been. It would have saved me a lot of grief,” he said.

“I don’t like coming to court and not being able to pay my bills.”

Moore said that his client is worried that going back to jail now will put his sobriety in jeopardy and kill his ability to earn income.

Yeager said it’s good to see Cooney sober, not being combative about paying support, and holding down a job. She told the magistrate she had no position on the contempt case that brought him into court today.

In the four-and-a-half years Nardi has been at the bench, he has found Cooney in contempt before and threatened jail several times, he said.

Cooney often waits until the last minute to pay, but he’s been doing better. He’s also spent a lot of time in jail on other charges, Nardi said.

He said he was a little surprised to hear Cooney say that jail might have been a better place for him years ago.

He tells Cooney he has to pay every week and in the proper amount. If he doesn’t show “a big effort” by the time of his next hearing on March 16, or if he fails to appear, he will have to go to jail for 90 days. If he can show compliance, the jail sentence will be canceled.

“Yes, your honor,” Cooney responds.

The grandmother touches Yeager Stogsdill’s arm. “Thank you,” she says.

The parties exit, and the magistrate calls up the next case.

About child support orders

The Brown County prosecutor’s office is obligated under Title IV-D of the Federal Social Security Act to enforce child support orders. As of October, deputy prosecutor Tracey Yeager Stogsdill was handling 498 cases with assistant Danetta Dorsett.

Mothers and fathers are both required to financially support their children, Yeager Stogsdill said.

In fiscal year 2016, the Brown County child support office brought in $1,228,618 in child support payments to custodial parents or guardians, Yeager Stogsdill said.

Parents who are not paying are in danger of getting charged with civil contempt of court, which could result in jail time. That’s considered a “coercive technique” to get them to abide by court orders, Yeager Stogsdill said. Even if found to be in contempt, the person is given multiple opportunities to “purge” themselves of contempt to avoid going to jail, Yeager Stogsdill said.

The prosecutor’s office also could choose to file criminal charges against them for nonsupport of a dependent child. Those also could result in fines and punitive jail time, up to $10,000 and two-and-a-half years.

On Nov. 6, the Brown County prosecutor’s office filed criminal charges against 17 mothers and fathers whom the prosecutor’s office alleged were not making good-faith efforts to pay. Eight of them had been booked into the Brown County jail as of Dec. 21; six had asked for public defenders because of their income levels.

Before this round of nonsupport charges was filed, charging parents criminally was a method the prosecutor’s office used “very sparingly,” said Prosecutor Ted Adams. Yeager Stogsdill could find two instances in the previous 16 years; one was against a father who was also charged in two nonsupport cases this past November.

Defense attorneys are able to file a Lambert petition on behalf of their clients, which will stop unpaid child support from piling up during the time a person is in jail.

Adams said he realizes that with a Lambert petition in place, putting a parent in jail for not paying won’t immediately benefit the adult who has custody of that child, but he believes that the parent who is not paying needs to have consequences.

Yeager Stogsdill likened the decision to file criminal charges instead of going through the civil contempt process to parenting: If you tell your child that he’s going get in trouble for doing something, and you wait weeks or months to actually follow through on your promise to punish him for doing it, “it’s meaningless at that point,” she said.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.