Deadbeat parents: How do you get those who don't pay to comply with laws?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 29, 2012

By Shavonne Potts

SALISBURY – It’s just after 12:15 p.m. and Terri Martin has anxiously waited most of the morning to find out if her ex-husband will face jail time or be allowed to walk out of the courtroom. She wonders if this time will be like the last.
Martin is one of the thousands of parents in Rowan County hoping this would be the day she receives child support.
It’s been a six-year struggle for Martin to obtain money from her ex-husband, Toby Meadows, to help support their three children – Trevor, 17, Cody, 14, and Bree, 12.
Martin has been married to Art Martin for six years. The two have a 5-year-old daughter, Morgan.
On Sept. 18, Terri Martin experienced she called a small victory when Meadows, 42, was sentenced to jail for non-compliance. “I think he’s played the court system for six years now,” Terri Martin said.
In August, District Court Judge Beth Dixon required Meadows to pay $250, find a job or complete 40 job searches and register with the Employment Securities Commission.
When he appeared in court a week ago with his attorney, Salisbury’s Ryan Addison, Meadows had not completed the requirements. He had not found a job and had not paid $250.
Dixon sentenced him to jail pending a $250 payment.
“I find it incredulous he can’t offer anything. What in the world has Mr. Meadows been doing?” Dixon said in court.
Dixon asked what Meadows did for his own living expenses. Addison said his client lived with his girlfriend and pointed her out in court.
“I think we’ve just been here too many times,” Dixon said.
Terri Martin couldn’t agree more. Throughout the years, she said, Meadows has paid very little support for their three children.
“He paid $900 once, but since 2006, he never caught up,” she said.
Once the $250 is paid, Meadows will be released from the Rowan County Detention Center. Meadows has since been relocated to the county’s jail annex on Grace Church Road and, as of Friday, remains there. The $250 will go to his ex-wife for the three children, but it’s just a small part of what he owes.
Court records show that as of Sept. 28, Meadows owed $16,017.
Meadows and his attorney declined to comment.
Terri Martin said after the brief Tuesday hearing she didn’t think the courts would sentence her ex-husband to jail. She said it was aggravating, worrying about the outcome.
She constantly worries because “my kids have needs that need to be met.”
Heartache and hunger
The Martins have had to do without so the children could have what they needed.
Terri said the children don’t go to the movies, and eating out is not an option for the family. But the children seem to understand.
Art, who is disabled, said there have been times where he has eaten soup and a sandwich so the children could eat more.
“We go without so the kids can have,” Art said.
Terri receives food stamps, but with a family of six, they often run short.
Terri said she is thankful to the children’s schools, which helped when she needed school supplies as well as referrals to agencies to help with clothing.
Terri, who was studying to be a nurse, had to quit to take care of her ailing grandmother. She’s hoping to return to school to receive certification as a nursing assistant or medical technician.
“This would give me more income,” Terri said.
Right now it’s a struggle to pay for the things the children need such as graduation expenses that are just around the corner for her son, Trevor.
The Martins not only worry about the everyday expenses, but the holidays are ever-present in their minds.
“My son said, ‘Mom, don’t worry about Christmas,’ ” Terri said.
The children, she said, have stopped trying to reach out to their father.
Establishing support
There is a commonly used word that instantly refers to a parent who has, for whatever reason, not met financial obligations for his or her child – deadbeat.
While the expression might conjure images of an episode of “The Maury Povich Show,” the reality is that in 2011 in Rowan County, courts heard 6,308 cases related to a parent not meeting those financial obligations.
In the child support system, social workers, law enforcement and judges refer to so-called “deadbeats” in official terms as non-custodial parents who don’t pay.
Not unlike an episode of the daytime talk show, child support begins with a paternity test.
A paternity test, though simple enough, is a vital part of the process. Paternity results can be obtained by testing a mouth or cheek swab from the parent in question.
Before Terri Martin could seek child support, she said, Meadows demanded a paternity test on the two youngest children, Cody and Bree.
She said Meadows was trying to avoid paying child support by saying they were not his biological children. However, paternity tests proved Meadows fathered all three children.
In 2002, Terri initially established child support with the court system after she and Meadows separated. The two reconciled at one point, but later divorced.
In 2004, the court ordered Meadows to pay $509 plus $50 for his overdue amount every month. In 2004, he owed $15,826.35. Meadows made a request to have the $559 reduced because he was unable to find a job, court records said. His monthly child support was reduced in August to $191 a month, an amount Martin said Meadows still has not paid.
If the parents are married at the time the child is born, legal paternity is established. Paternity can also be deemed legal if two unmarried parents sign a form or a birth certificate agreeing they are in fact the child’s parents.
The parent or guardian who has physical custody of the child is the custodial parent, or the one seeking financial help.
“It doesn’t have to be legal custody,” said Elizabeth Berry, child support enforcement supervisor with the Rowan County Department of Social Services.
A grandparent, foster parent or other relative is a custodian if they have physical custody of a child, but it does not have to be court-appointed custody, she said.
There are child support issues that are handled between the parents that do not involve the Department of Social Services.
The process begins with the non-custodial parent receiving a civil court summons or complaint to establish support.
Berry said in some cases, once it has been established that the non-custodial parent owes child support, they pay. In some cases, like Martin’s, the father has to be found before he can be ordered to pay.
In Rowan County, just three deputies with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office search for parents who owe child support.
The officers – David Holstein, Shauna Wale and Pete Mille – rely on information from the parent who has custody to help enforce court-ordered payments.
Holstein covers the eastern part of the county, Wale covers the southern part and Miller, the northern and western parts of the county.
Search and find
If non-custodial parents can’t be found, they can’t be placed under child support. There are a number of tools to locate a non-custodial parent, including relying heavily on information from the parent with custody and Rowan sheriff’s deputies to physically locate the non-custodial parent, Berry said.
“However, some people work without reporting their Social Security number and some move in with relatives or friends that are willing to help them hide,” Berry said.
People are more mobile than they used to be, she added.
Child support enforcement staff can’t force non-custodial parents to pay.
“We are agents and supervisors. We have no legal authority. We use the enforcement tools that are made available to us to the fullest extent possible. If those remedies aren’t successful, the case is referred to court and the judges apply the law as they see fit,” Berry said.
What makes it so difficult to find a non-custodial parent is because “the defendant, most times, knowingly skips town or moves because (of) the recurring and accruing date,” said Sgt. Sharon Hovis, who is head of the Rowan Sheriff’s Office’s civil division.
While Martin believes her ex-husband has “played the system,” Hovis said there is no way to know if someone is abusing the system.
The information the sheriff’s office receives is only what’s on the order of arrest, she said, and deputies are “not privy to why or how the warrant came to be.”

Some commonly used tools for child support enforcement:
• Track parents’ whereabouts via computer data
• Verify employment
• Implement automatic wage withholding from paychecks
• Attach liens to a settlement (personal injury or litigation)
• Freeze bank accounts
• Intercept tax refunds
• Revoke professional license
• Require job searches for the unemployed
• Impose community service requirements while not working or seeking employment
• Use electronic house arrest
• Suspend a jail commitment in exchange for lump sum cash payment toward past due support
• Jail

Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.