I-Team report: Child support crackdown - WNEM TV 5

I-Team report: Child support crackdown

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MID-MICHIGAN (WNEM) -

For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. These are some of the vows two people make when they get married.

But unfortunately, too often, that promise of living happily ever after is broken.

For Jesica, the dream ended after six years of marriage and two children.

“I decided I was mom and dad. I tell myself Happy Father’s Day. I tell myself Happy Mother’s Day, and the kids do too,” said Jesica, a divorced mother of two.

Jesica, who we are not fully identifying, said her ex struggled with drug addiction and she finally had enough.

“I had encouraged him to get help. At the point I decided it was a divorce, he was refusing to get help, refusing to help with the children. All he cared about was his drugs,” Jesica told the I-Team.

But Jesica said what followed next was a nearly eight year battle to get financial support from her ex-husband to help raise their children, who were 5 and 10-years-old at the time.

“At first it was great! At first, they gave me custody, there was no petition, no battle, no fight," she said.

But Jesica said her experience with the Friend of the Court system in Ogemaw County really started to go south about four years ago.

“He told the judge he wasn’t working. The judge looked at me and said, ‘How can I order him to pay child support?’ I thought, well, I don’t have that option! I don’t have that option not to work. I don’t have that option not to support my children, why does he? The judge said, ‘Well, what can we do? If he’s not getting any money, how can we make him pay money?” Make him get a job," Jesica said.

Jesica said it was obvious her ex was getting money from somewhere.

“He would show up, dressed nicer than my children, even jewelry. Brand new shoes, brand new outfit, name-brand clothes while we were shopping at Wal-Mart. Not that there’s anything against that, but my kids come first," Jesica said.

According to paperwork Jesica showed us, she hasn’t received a penny from her ex-husband for nearly the last four years.

“My daughter, she has braces, that’s $250 a month that we pay. And if he helped, that would make the bills a little easier. That would make home improvements easier. That would make car payments easier. That would make my son’s open house graduation party easier," she said.

As the I-Team discovered, Jesica’s child support journey is not isolated.

Parents all around Mid-Michigan are going head-to-head with the Friend of the Court where they live, trying to get the county to crack down on their ex.

So why is it so hard, and can more be done to make delinquent parents more accountable?

In Tuscola County we found an agency changing that and they have the praise to prove it. 

“At the end of the day, FOC is not necessarily the most popular agency out there. But I think, given the circumstances, the fact that it’s really rough, we’re dealing with families, their finances, their kids,” said Sandy Erskine, Director of Tuscola County’s Friend of the Court.

The State’s Office of Child Support has recognized Tuscola County’s efforts several times in recent years.

Erskine said once the case lands in their office, the process begins.

“We issue income-withholding orders, sometimes if folks aren’t paying. We look for bank accounts. We do lots of things to make sure families and kids get the money they deserve,” Erskine explained to the I-Team.

She said the state gets certain benchmarks to measure how well each county is doing.

The benchmarks look at everything from how many cases the county handles, to their success in collecting payments, to establishing paternity in cases where there may be a dispute.

“Once paternity is established we can move forward and get a support order for custody and parenting time,” Erskine said.

Erskine said she’s proud of the track record Tuscola County has established. 

“I think we’re one of only a couple of counties for the last three years, maybe two or three counties, who have managed to meet all of the benchmarks. There are five and we’ve met all of them," Erskine said.

Erskine said the key to their success is putting families first, not just the finances.

“We’ve really tried to be innovative. We really look at the family as a whole. The olden days were really just kinda chasing the last dollar and we’ve really moved away from that model to a family-centered approach," Erskine said.

They work to figure out what’s standing between parents and their payments, and they try to fix it.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of transportation. Sometimes they don’t have a driver’s license which makes it hard for them to find employment," Erskine said.

For now, Jesica is hoping other counties will follow Tuscola County’s lead and put families first and provide them with much needed, and much overdue financial support.

“I do believe FOC has a purpose. I do. I think it helps people, but I think there are people that slip through the cracks," Jesica said.

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