Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Search of Child Support

This is a piece I wrote for NUVO Newsweekly a decade ago. Came across it and thought it was worth another read. I changed the names to respect the privacy of the subject's family.

Jenny sits in a chair against the wall in blue jeans and casual leather shoes, clutching a file folder against her chest. She is slender and in her late thirties. She's nervous. Her brown eyes are red at the edges, perhaps near tears. They dart from the door to the receptionist's window. 

This basement waiting room is half filled. It's a joyless, windowless place, lit by stark fluorescent lights. A name is called out. Someone gets up and disappears into the courtroom, also half filled with people. There is a somber, tense atmosphere, kinda like a funeral. Some people, like Jenny, are here to force collection of child support; others are behind in their payments.

Jenny watches the door uneasily, wondering if this is the day she'll come face to face with her ex-husband, the father of her daughters, a man she and her children haven't seen in nearly ten years. She hopes that today is the end, the resolution of all those years of searching and doing without. Either he begins paying support again or he goes to jail. She'd be satisfied with either outcome.

Jenny is in the waiting room of the 19th Circuit, IVD Court in the City County Building in Indianapolis, drawn back into the events of an earlier life. She sits against the wall with her legs crossed tightly, her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand.

What led to the end of her first marriage is at once unremarkable and startling. Husbands who stay out all night drinking are nothing new. But on one of those late nights Jenny got a devastating call revealing that her husband, Jim, had fathered a child with another woman. That was the end.

Jenny looks about the waiting room at the other hapless women, "It's humiliating to sit here and think of all the stupid mistakes you made that led to this moment."

Jenny and Jim divorced at the opening of 1991 after four years of marriage. They had two children; one daughter, two and a half and another, just fifteen months old. As it turns out the end of the marriage was just the beginning of a downward spiral of struggle for Jenny.

"After we divorced, he came to see the girls a couple times," she says matter of fact, "but he hasn't seen them or willingly paid a dime since. That was '91. I guess I never really believed from the start I'd ever see any support."

Jim didn't pay child support nor buy the health insurance the divorce settlement required he keep for his daughters. Jenny hadn't worked in four years, but got a job in a doctor's office at $9.00 an hour. Jim disappeared.

The folder Jenny holds in her lap is filled with ten years of desperate letters to prosecutors, legalistic letters of response from them and newspaper clippings about child support cheaters. The folder tells a heartbreaking, maddening tale of an irresponsible father, an overwhelmed child support system and disorganized prosecutor's offices grown callous and careless from the routine of dealing with desperate women.

In the early days after the divorce, the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office was little or no help in tracking down Jim or the child support Jenny needed. She shakes her head in exasperation, "At that time the person in charge of child support was rude and useless. They wanted me to do all the legwork - find out where Jim lived, where he worked. I tried, but couldn't find him. And while I looked I was working full time and coming home to two little girls, laundry, housework and bills. Wasn't looking for him also their job?"

Her back against the wall, Jenny sold her house to make ends meet. Soon afterwards, this woman who had once lived in a comfortable, middle class home in a Noblesville subdivision was signing her children up for Medicaid. She moved to Indianapolis and transferred her child support case to Marion County.

Seemingly, Jim Phillips had fallen off the face of the earth. He didn't file tax returns or communicate with his ex-wife. In 1992 the Marion County prosecutor's office issued a warrant for his arrest, but nothing came of it. There's no evidence that Phillips was particularly good at hiding from authorities or that any serious effort was made to find and arrest him.

Back in the court's waiting room Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Michael McGuire II hurriedly comes through a side door and motions Jenny into a conference room. He looks harried and overworked. Jenny disappears into the small room with him to find out what will happen today.

Jenny's personal transformation from victim to fighter came in the spring and summer of 1993 when the downward spiral hit bottom. On May 20 of that year, her then four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with diabetes. Without child support or health insurance she now had a daughter who would need repeated blood sugar tests, regulated food intake and two insulin shots a day.  A month later, Jenny came down with pneumonia but continued to work and care for her children, knowing she had no other option. There wasn't time to hunt for Jim Phillips or the money he withheld, she was just trying to stay alive. Jenny emerged from this dark period to discover that the Marion County prosecutor's office had made no progress in tracking down Jim Phillips, or the child support she needed now more than ever.
Later that year she wrote to then Marion County Prosecutor, Jeffery Modisett. "We've spent the last three years trying to rebuild our lives. Always listening to what you people are doing to help us single mothers who receive no support."

Jenny herself had been raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Her father apparently only occasionally paid support. In another letter from 1993 Jenny wrote, "Growing up in a single parent home, I swore I would never end up that way. Is it hereditary?"

No longer willing to be swept along by events, she began fighting back. She gained control of her life, but lived the often frantic existence of a single mother; at times, up all night tending to a sick child, who then went to work with her the next day because day care wouldn't accept ill children and Jenny couldn't afford a day long hole in her paycheck. She lived and breathed work and childcare, getting up in the morning with her daughters and falling exhausted into bed after she put them to sleep at night. It was a time of more Medicaid and free school lunches for the kids.

In those days the prosecutor's office would arrange a telephone conference only to put Jenny on the phone with an employee who couldn't find her file. During other calls employees were rude or treated her like a nuisance. As Modisett readied for reelection in late 1994, she wrote again, "I have received not one ounce of help, let along support. I wouldn't even try again except your office is launching such a large campaign for reelection. Every day is another article in the paper or another commercial as to what you are doing to help parents collect back support." At that point, Jim Phillips owed Jenny Williams nearly $40,000 in child support.

In late '94, the Marion County prosecutor's office notified Jenny that they'd asked federal authorities to help them track down Jim Phillips.  A year later, Phillips surfaced in interstate computers when he renewed his driver's license in Tennessee. Nothing ever came of it.

In August of 1996, Jenny remarried, and the long lonely struggle of single parenting ended.

Jenny emerges from the conference room. "They're sick of me," she says. "Why? Because when they don't return my repeated calls, I call their bosses. In nearly 10 years of trying to get the support he owes my girls, this is only the second time I've gotten far enough to get to court." The first time was a month ago. "And still we're getting nowhere."

In her folder is a clipping from the Indianapolis Star dated March 30th, 1998, highlighting Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman's "Most Wanted Child Support Offenders." The worst of the ten offenders owed $51,700 in back support. But Jim Phillips was not on the list. This, even though the prosecutor's office had tallied his unpaid child support by then at nearly $86,000. Jenny says, "You see something like that and in some ways it stops being, 'He owes my daughters money,' and it starts being about justice."

A month later, as Jenny and her new husband, Bob Williams, neared completion of an adoption process that would legally name Bob the father of her daughters, Jenny made a final attempt to find Jim Phillips. She wrote a letter to Marion County Prosecutor, Scott Newman. Finally, after eight years, there was progress.

Soon thereafter, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, Michael McGuire II, found Jim Phillips in the little town of Locust, North Carolina, working in a manufacturing facility. Ironically, just as Jim Phillips's daughters were legally no longer his and he was no longer financially responsible for them, his wages began to be garnished, forcing him to start paying the $85,897.58 in support arrears he owed. After eight years of waiting, the $230.00 a week Jim Phillips was supposed to pay began arriving. With it, Jenny started a college savings account for her daughters. It felt like a small measure of vindication after years of struggle.

But Jim Phillips did not pay willingly. First his employer protested the garnishing. Then Phillips threatened to sue his employer if it didn't stop. In March of this year the payments ended. Jim Phillips had apparently been fired from his job.

A voice calls through the door of the courtroom, "Jenny Williams." Once inside she moves toward a long, high, wood grained counter with Deputy Prosecutor Michael McGuire. The ceiling is low in this claustrophobic courtroom. Rows of seats are half filled with those waiting their turn before the judge. Jenny and McGuire stand to the right of presiding Master Commissioner, Carol Terzo. An attorney approaches the counter and stands to the left.

Jenny scans the room for Jim Phillips, but he's not there. Turns out, Phillips had hired an attorney via the Internet. This even though at a hearing a month earlier the court insisted that he, personally must come to Indiana today to answer for the unpaid support or face arrest. No matter, Commissioner Terzo proceeds, ignoring her own order from a month earlier.           

Deputy Prosecutor McGuire wants to establish a new benchmark of arrears to submit to North Carolina. When he reads off the figure, in excess of $66,000, the gallery of spectators gasps. A few women laugh nervously, perhaps comparing their own unpaid support with Jenny's ridiculously huge amount. McGuire and Commissioner Terzo rapidly argue the incomprehensible legal details of Jenny's case as if she isn't there. Phillips's attorney interrupts from time to time, explaining that he knows nothing about the case. At one point he waves a cashier's check in the air, prepayment he received from Phillips for his legal services.

Jenny is asked no questions and isn't allowed to speak. Quickly, it's over. They've established a set amount that Phillips owes and his attorney, without even really trying, gets him another month's reprieve. Commissioner Terzo showed no surprise, anger or exasperation at Phillips's ten years of hiding, stalling or avoidance of court orders. On this assembly line of court cases they rapidly move on to the next case.

When she passed through the metal detectors in the hall outside before the hearing, Jenny had seemed anxious about seeing Jim Phillips again. Was she afraid of her ex-husband? "No," she insists. "I was afraid that he'd ask me something like, 'How are the girls?' and that would have sent me right over the edge." The tension of anticipation is gone now, and the gentle edge to Jenny's personality returns. She's relaxed.

Driving home, Jenny thinks of her own father. "After he died, my brother and I went to his apartment and cleaned out all his stuff. When I was going through his papers, I found an old receipt for a child support payment he made for me and my brother when we were small." She stares ahead, over the steering wheel and shakes her head at the heartache of it all.

Jenny's second marriage has answered her earlier, painful question. No, single motherhood need not be hereditary. But some qualities are passed down. Even though she's always tried to shelter them from her personal struggles with single parenthood, Jenny's daughters display the same will and drive that got her through the hard times. The oldest got a paper route because she dreamed of buying her own computer. After nearly a year of work, she'd saved enough. And Jenny’s younger daughter aggressively participates in countless sports and other activities with an insulin pump attached to her waist. But both girls know little about their mother's pursuit of the child support their biological father has avoided all these years.

Jenny Williams harbors remarkably little personal bitterness about the money she did without during the difficult years when her girls were younger. "It's not my money," she insists, "it's theirs. He owes it to them. And it's not right that the system should just let him get away without paying it."

But for most of an entire decade the system has carelessly done exactly that. Yet, that may change. Finally, on November 22nd, the court made good on it's threat of two months earlier, issuing a warrant for Jim Phillips's arrest. It's now up to North Carolina authorities to act on the warrant and decide if the father of Jenny Williams' children will get away without paying.

A footnote: I have had sporadic contact with Jenny Williams over the years, but I have no idea whether she ever got another penny from her ex-husband. Yet, I do see her daughters on Facebook. They have both graduated from college and are healthy and happy young women.


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