BISMARCK – Daniel Nation is counting down the days until he’s done paying child support.
The West Fargo dad said it’s not because he doesn’t want to support his two sons. It’s because he’s tired of dealing with the North Dakota child support system.
“I call up there, and they treat me like the guy who is $100,000 behind and never sees their kids,” said Nation, whose child support obligation ends in May. “I really pity the poor person that’s just getting started on this that’s got 20 years (ahead) of being treated like a slug.”
He isn’t the only one with concerns. Emails poured in with complaints after Forum Communications asked for feedback about the system.
In response, North Dakota Department of Human Services officials say the state has one of the top-performing programs in the country.
“It’s the nature of child support,” Child Support Enforcement Program Director Jim Fleming said of the complaints. “If you have a thin skin, I don’t think you work for this agency.”
Fleming said there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the program.
“You’re going to have a given percentage of the customer base that thinks we’re not mean enough, and (others) that think we’re too mean,” he said. “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
A common complaint among readers who wrote in was with how child support payments are determined.
“My husband for one child pays $500 a month, according to the scale, while the father of my child only is ordered to pay $168,” one reader wrote. “I feel that my husband is punished for having a good paying job while others get away with little to nothing.”
“How, in good conscience, can North Dakota allow child support judgments as low as $17 a month for two children?” another wrote.
The chart establishing how much money someone pays in child support is included in the state’s administrative code. Someone earning $100 or less in monthly net income would pay $17 a month for two children. Likewise, someone earning $3,000 a month would pay $846 for two children.
The system is designed to reflect the absence of the parent and provide the child with the same standard of living if the family had remained intact, Fleming said.
“Not to make every situation generous and bountiful,” he said. “It would be nice if we could. That’s not going to always be feasible.”
No one gains by collecting three-fourths of what the child support payer makes, Fleming said. This would push the payer to the breaking point and to hide from the agency, he said.
The amount required is based on a percentage of income and stems from federal figures on the cost of raising children, he said. There are a limited number of reasons courts can use to deviate from these amounts, Fleming said.
Nation, the West Fargo father, would like to see custodial and noncustodial parents’ wages considered when determining child support.
“I would like to see them follow their motto. If you want to make it so the relationship between father and kids and mother and kids is optimal, don’t strap the father so much,” he said.
Other readers were upset about what they see as a lack of child support enforcement.
“My child’s father can go for months not paying a thing, and there seems to be little concern,” a reader wrote. “However if my husband’s work forgets to send a payment, he gets a notice and a threat of court. So they again punish those who pay and don’t punish those who don’t pay. This is beyond messed up.”
Shauna Vistad of West Fargo said she wants to know why the child support division enforces and works hard on only easy cases.
“I understand that they are simply looking to show good numbers, but the reality is the cases that need the most attention are neglected,” she said.
Vistad said she doesn’t know why the program is called “enforcement” and why she’s required to use it if the workers aren’t going to make calls and do work without prompting.
“I feel our child support enforcement unit is doing a horrible job,” she said. “They pick and choose who they want to help based on what is easy.”
Fleming said the same standard is applied to everyone, and the division doesn’t condone delinquency. Some people are easier to find than others, and different cases need different amounts of time, he said.
“It’s not that we aren’t vigilant and watching for it (delinquency),” he said. “There’s going to be a time lag while we track down somebody who is trying to evade their responsibility as opposed to somebody who stays in the same job all the time.”
There are also noncustodial parents without steady employment who find a job until the work runs out and then job hunt again, he said.
“If we pounce too hard or schedule a contempt proceeding too quickly, then (the parent) is spending all of their time going back to court instead of working to earn the wages that can lead to the new payments,” Fleming said.
Other readers questioned why custodial parents aren’t held accountable for how they spend child support money.
Fleming said he often hears this complaint. However, he estimated the average obligation in North Dakota is $300 per month per child. That doesn’t go far with day care, clothes, food and rent, he said.
If detailed accounting was required of the cost to raise the child so the noncustodial parent paid half, the amount would often exceed the payment ordered by the court, he said.
It’s ‘for the kids’
Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said lawmakers often hear about child support issues during legislative hearings. Noncustodial parents will say the child support system supports custodial parents and not them, she said.
“It doesn’t support either one of them. Their (the agency’s) legal obligation is to enforce the court order for the kids,” Lee said. “They work for the children, and they get in the middle of all these fights. It’s an ugly place for them to be.”
The program’s regulations are largely set by the federal government and courts determine individual cases, Lee said, but kids get used as weapons against the other parent
“I’m not beating up on all of the wonderful people who are making their payment on time and are still involved with their kids,” Lee said. “There are way more of them than there are those who intentionally don’t pay.”
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said child support is one of the main issues constituents talk to him about. He said concerns are primarily about issues such as visitation and how child support is spent as opposed to complaints against the state enforcement office.
With so many marriages ending in divorce, there needs to be more education to reduce problems that come up in child support disputes, Mathern said. Young people need to be educated about the ongoing obligations if they have children, and couples considering divorce should learn about child support before the marriage ends, he said.
Those marrying someone with children should ask questions about child support obligations so they aren’t taken by surprise later, Mathern said.
Nation of West Fargo said he would like to become an advocate to improve the child support system.
Fleming said the agency never loses sight of the fact that it wants to do better. He said he works in child support because he sees the good the agency does for children.
“You try to do good with all of the parents involved by being fair and reasonable, but you know what you’re really there for is making sure kids get the support they need,” he said.
E The North Dakota Child Support Enforcement Program serves about 64,100 children and 76,560 parents.
E The division has 164 full-time equivalency positions spread among the main office in Bismarck and eight field offices throughout the state.
E Child support enforcement is designed “to enhance the well-being of children and reduce the demands on public treasuries by securing child support and medical support from legally responsible parents and by encouraging positive relationships between children and their parents.”
E In 2010, total child support collections reached a record $129 million.
E Three-fourths of parents in the system pay on time and in full, Director Jim Fleming said. About 18,000 are behind in payments worth nearly $225 million.
E Child support enforcement services include finding parents, establishing paternity, establishing child support and medical support obligations, enforcing child support and medical support obligations, and reviewing and adjusting obligations.
E After the courts assign custody of children, what generally happens is the parent with primary responsibility will ask for child support, Fleming said. The child support division shares a computer system with clerks of courts so the amount of child support entered by the court is known, he said.
E Once the data is in the system, the division begins to enforce it, he said. The agency also receives referrals from public assistance programs so, if a parent receives state assistance, the state will look at establishing child support from the other parent if there’s not an order already.
E The division reviews cases every three years, but looks at cases sooner if it is notified of a material income change, Fleming said.
Here are additional child support questions from readers that North Dakota Child Support Enforcement Program Director Jim Fleming answered.
Reader concern: Why do we lose our driver’s license if we are behind? When we need it for a job to pay it off?
The child support division is designed to use tools that encourage parents to honor their court order, Fleming said. The license suspension helps get parents to pay or to call and negotiate a payment plan, he said.
A parent needs to be two months or $2,000 behind in child support, whichever is less, for a driver’s license suspension, he said. Another effective tool is issuing a notice of intent to suspend hunting and fishing licenses for falling behind in child support, Fleming said.
Reader concern: My ex-husband’s last employer was delinquent of sending the money to the state and was withholding it from his check. Can they fine these employers?
By law, all child support obligations are subject to immediate income withholding, Fleming said. Like taxes, this money is withheld from employees’ paychecks. The division then processes it, applies the money to the obligation and then disperses the money.
This way, there isn’t room for doubt about whether someone paid or didn’t if a third party maintains the payment records, he said.
Employers may inadvertently miss a payment and may need a reminder, he said. Late fees can be imposed on employers, but most complaints from the custodial parent against businesses turn out to be inaccurate, Fleming said. For example, the custodial parent may be unaware the child’s other parent took time off without pay, he said.
Reader concern: My ex-husband is now over $6,000 in the hole again, and I hear nothing about how they are going to retrieve this.
If there’s a willful failure to pay, prosecutors can charge the parent, Fleming said. He would like to see more prosecutions but said time constraints on prosecutors make this difficult. The agency can intercept tax refunds to apply toward overdue child support.
Contempt of court proceedings are a component of what the agency does when a parent isn’t paying child support. Fleming said the division started a program a few years ago to connect these parents with a Job Service employee. If a parent says he or she can’t find work, the parent must meet with Job Service to receive help.
He’s seen cases where this dramatically improved the relationship between the two parents.
If the agency can’t find a parent who owes child support for three years, the case is considered closed. However, the case can be reopened and enforced at any time, Fleming said.
“We have obligors that we will find or catch up to when they start to receive Social Security payments,” he said.
Reader concern: Any past contact with the child support agency in North Dakota has been frustrating at best. The personnel were mostly rude, evasive and not very helpful. Every time I spoke with a representative, I was left with the feeling that they assumed I was a deadbeat and deserved to be treated as such.
Fleming doesn’t like the word “deadbeat” used in connection with child support.
“We want to be a lot more productive and constructive with our customers than to call them names,” he said.
Fleming said customers who believe they received bad service can ask to speak to the employee’s supervisor.
“The reality is that sometimes they will hear answers from us that they don’t like and that translates into being rude or unprofessional when really they’re very professional about it,” Fleming said.
Reader concern: Why does a noncustodial parent have to pay child support when the custodial refuses to allow any visitation?
The Child Support Enforcement Program is not authorized to enforce visitation, Fleming said. That needs to be handled through the legal system.
Fleming said two wrongs don’t make a right when a noncustodial parent refuses to pay child support because the custodial parent refuses to allow visitation.
“Monthly child support doesn’t belong to the custodial parent. It belongs to the kid,” he said.