Cases often end up in court
Wednesday, June 05, 2013 7:00 PM
Many know that skipping a cable bill or forgetting to pay the electric bill results in negative consequences such as late fees or having the service turned off. But not paying child support has consequences much more severe than that - a felony charge.
Menominee County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Hass discusses a child-support felony case file with Dana Cole after the case was referred from the Friend of Court for noncompliance of court-ordered child support payments. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
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When child support is not paid, there is a series of events that take place to bring the payments up-to-date and several chances are given to make things right.
According to Gale Mattison, Marinette County's corporation counsel and primary child support counsel, when they find out a parent is four weeks or more behind on their child-support payments, a motion is filed with the court system to hold the parent in contempt. The parent is then served a notice to appear in court where they will be given a chance to explain why they should not go to jail for not paying child support.
However, before their appearance in court, the parent has the chance to resolve the situation with a child-support attorney. When a payment arrangement is made, either in installments or a lump sum of the money owed, these conditions are placed on the court order and the parent will not be given jail time.
"We don't want people to sit in jail," Mattison said. "We want them to pay their child support."
Other situations may call for a reassessment of the child support amount or the parent may be ordered to conduct work searches until they find employment to support the money owed to their child. Sometimes, the child support office will require a parent to obtain a GED or a driver's license if they don't have an equivalent, so that they are more easily employable.
"The state has an interest in children being supported," Mattison added. "When we meet with people, we don't allow them to bicker and fight or name-call. The issue is child support. The children need to be supported. They need to eat and they need medical care."
If they still do not make payments or keep up with their purge conditions, the child support office files another motion with the court. The parent has another chance to explain themselves. However, according to Mattison, the parent will most likely serve a jail sentence. The only way out of this is to meet the conditions on their purge order, such as paying the amount owed, keeping up with monthly payments or conducting the needed amount of work searches.
"With everything that has to take place and the amount of time we give someone to comply with their purge conditions, there's, minimally, a three-month time period before we ask the court to put someone in jail," Mattison said. "A parent has a lot of opportunities along the way to catch up, make it right and do what they are supposed to do."
To Mattison, the ability to provide programs to teach skills, such as financial responsibility, to help people in the child support system is, "theoretically, a wonderful idea."
"Some counties have pilot programs that help people more, but we don't have the staff for that. There is just no money in the county to do that right now," she added.
However, programs to help parents learn responsibility have to come second after properly equipping the county to handle the sheer volume of child support enforcement cases.
"I'm the only attorney in Marinette County. Many other counties our size have one or more assistant corporation counsels that handle child support cases. I contract out some of the cases because I just can't handle them all," Mattison said.
However, despite these deficiencies, Mattison said she believes her office does a satisfactory job enforcing payment throughout Marinette County.
If a parent is found in contempt multiple times, the child support office will refer their case to the district attorney's office in Marinette County or prosecuting attorney's office in Menominee County.
This is where the services of Dan Hass, Menominee County Prosecuting Attorney, are helpful.
"When their case is referred to my office for review for felony charges, these people face a four-year felony and more jail time if they are convicted," Hass said.
He added that these people range from those who flat-out refuse to pay to people who are down on their luck and are unemployed or maybe who have lost their job. He also mentioned that there is a class of people who are unemployable sometimes because of medical or mental issues.
"We try to work with these people to find out what their situation is and to clean up their act to become employable so they can pay their child support," Hass added.
Sometimes, even when there is a felony charge involved, the parent still has a chance to make things right with a provision of statute that says if they comply with their order of probation and get back on track with paying their support, they could avoid receiving a felony conviction.
Hass agrees that issues such as visitation rights and parenting have no place in the child-support cases.
"If a parent isn't happy with the arrangements for visitation, they have to go through a different system to change that," he said. "It doesn't mean they have the right to stop making child-support payments altogether."
Hass also said he felt the threat of a felony does deter a good portion of people from not paying their child support, even though a few do manage to receive a felony conviction.
"The system is a very valuable tool and we try to get the message out there that if you don't pay, you could become a convicted felon," he said.