When the economy sinks, a lot of things can go south. In this case, it’s child-support payments.
John Cole, director of the Kent County Friend of the Court, reported last week that $419 million is owed in back child support. Cole said some are simply avoiding payments, but many others have lost their jobs and are still being billed at the same rate as if they were employed.
Cole explained that Friend of the Court, which is the collection, enforcement and investigative arm of the 17th Circuit Court in the county, takes a percentage of unemployment checks for support when a parent loses a job. But in many cases today when someone fails to make the court-ordered payments, the agency can’t rely on its standby collection process — when an employer withholds child support from an employee’s paycheck.
“A great deal of our clients are unemployed,” he said. “Right now, we’re doing more in reducing child support than in raising it.”
Still, Cole said the county’s Friend of the Court collected about $100 million in child-support payments last year, the third-highest yearly total since 1988.
Despite the arrears total, the agency had a pretty good year in 2008, when it led all the state’s larger counties in establishing paternity through a ranking of 98 percent. The lone exception was Wayne County.
The office ranked third in overall collections statewide and led the state’s larger counties in collecting late payments with.
Kent County Friend of the Court was second in the state last year for collecting $11.62 for every dollar the agency spent in 2008.
The agency has a 2009 budget of $8.9 million, with two-thirds of those dollars coming from the state and the remaining third from the county. It has 104 full-time employees and is one of the four divisions within the Circuit Court.
“I look at that $419 million as a blot on our record,” said Cole of the amount in arrears. “But it’s just not Kent County; it’s all over the state and the country.”