Legal delays hardest on children involved

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 16, 2001

NATCHEZ – Women may be frustrated with the lengthy process of getting child support that is due. But the children involved are the ones who are hurt, a Natchez attorney said.

&uot;Our local courts do a good job,&uot; said Eileen Maher, whose practice includes family law. &uot;The judges around here won’t hesitate to put someone in jail for contempt of court if he doesn’t make payments.&uot;

Meanwhile, though, children go without material things that could make their lives more secure as the legal process stalls for any number of reasons or if the non-compliant spouse disappears or goes to jail.

Email newsletter signup

&uot;On one level, maybe the child can’t go to private school; on another level, maybe he can’t have designer clothes,&uot; Maher said. &uot;But on some levels, it’s whether or not the child has enough to eat and a place to live.&uot;

Maher and other lawyers have seen a system overwhelmed by the numbers of child support cases. &uot;The agencies like DHS (Department of Human Services) and Legal Aid do a wonderful job, but they are overwhelmed by the workload,&uot; she said.

Attorneys in private practice often are willing to take cases for no fee up front in anticipation of winning the lawsuit and receiving payment from the other side.

&uot;The worst thing someone can do is not going to get help,&uot; she said. &uot;Some attorneys may turn them down, but they should just keep on going down the list.&uot;

Overload at DHS

Retired after 10 years as an attorney at the Department of Human Services, where he pursued child support cases, Clinton Davis remembers the piles of files and the overwhelming number of cases – at least 3,000 cases in Adams County when he first started with the department.

&uot;I’m sure those numbers have grown,&uot; Davis said. &uot;I used to go to court with two briefcases full. Sometimes I’d see the client for the first time that day in court.&uot;

Davis, who retired in 1999, handled 60 cases a month. &uot;We had two lawyers approved for Adams County but no money to hire,&uot; he said. &uot;So now one person comes once a month from McComb.&uot;

The Department of Human Services in fact processes many of the child support cases in the county and in the state.

A controversial Mississippi Supreme Court ruling affecting child support cases has been in the news this week. An Associated Press story on Wednesday said the court had ruled DHS should not work on cases of people who were not receiving DHS assistance.

The department has been a haven for any spouse seeking child support payments, requiring only a $25 fee from anyone seeking legal help in those matters.

State Auditor Phil Bryant said in the release that Mississippi stands to lose millions of dollars in federal funds if the issue cannot be resolved. Federal law requires DHS to assist anyone, regardless of whether he or she receives aid.

Losing federal funds would put more jobs in jeopardy. Davis said the department could use more, not fewer attorneys.

No easy solution sometimes

Child support cases are not open and shut. Davis has seen men begin to make payments and then suddenly stop. &uot;It might be six months before we could find them again,&uot; he said. &uot;And jail doesn’t always help. A man may go to jail three times and still not make his payments. I’ve heard them say many times that they just don’t want anyone telling them what to do.&uot;

And sometimes they disappear, going even to another state, Davis said.

Attorney Maher said a case becomes more complicated when the father is hard to find. &uot;If they don’t stay put, it’s a tough situation. That’s when it’s good to have an agency involved. If the father goes to another state, the agency such as DHS will have interstate compacts. Government agencies are good at finding people and keeping track of them.&uot;

Still, Davis said the problem of numbers persists. &uot;I&160;gave everything I could, but sometimes it wasn’t enough,&uot; he said.

Impact on children

Recently Davis saw a young girl who is in trouble as a shoplifter. She is the daughter of a father who has been in court for nonpayment of child support and has taken little interest in the girl. &uot;The mothers are working and the fathers are not paying. A mother should not have to do it all,&uot; he said. &uot;She can’t work all hours and then be expected to discipline, too.&uot;

Mary Jane Gaudet, director of the Families First Resource Center at the Adams County Juvenile Justice Center, said she sees many young parents who do not try to get child support payments.

She also is troubled by symptoms of emotional stability seen in children who are deprived of a father figure as well as financial needs.

&uot;We see women with five jobs, struggling to make it; they can never be home with their kids, and the kids get into trouble,&uot; Gaudet said.

&uot;We see young people with severe rage problems, and you can only touch the tip of the iceberg as to where it’s coming from.&uot;

Parents have that basic obligation to their children to provide financial assistance, she said. &uot;At least they deserve the basic necessities of life.&uot;

The bickering that goes on between mothers and fathers over child support has a lasting effect on children, Gaudet said. &uot;Children begin to think they’re the problem. A child has a right to childhood.&uot;

Gaudet has many aids in the resource center to assist parents and children in troubling situations. &uot;We want to teach males and females to be good parents. We offer parenting classes. And we’re open 12 hours a day and on Saturday mornings.&uot;