Few workers, many cases
Child Support, Friend of Court offices help people navigate the system
Monday, June 03, 2013 7:00 PM
Security is tight at the two agencies in the Twin Cities that help parents obtain child support.
Director Corina Dionne (left) talks with Kathy Waldrogel (back) as administrative assistant Betty Jansen works at the Marinette County Child Support office in Marinette. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
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Both the Marinette County Child Support Agency and the Menominee County Friend of Court offices at the two local courthouses have glass security windows and locked doors.
The reason for the security is clear: Child support often is a very emotional and frustrating issue.
"We get a few people that get rowdy at our counter," said Marinette County Child Support Director Corina Dionne. "Thank goodness we have a court officer.
"I've noticed in the last three years that people are more angry and rude, even on the phone. I don't know if it is that way in society in general. They just want to vent, but they're not realizing that we're just doing our jobs."
Menominee County Friend of Court Renee Herrild said her staff deals with anyone who comes to the service window, whether they are polite or not.
"We are always kind to people," she said. "We are never rude. We hold our breath a lot of times. We know these people are under stress, we know there's hard times out there.
"Our office is secure because of all the confidentiality and paperwork that we have. It's also necessary for the safety of our employees."
Inside those secure offices are two dedicated staffs that help thousands of parents obtain court orders for financial and medical support for their children and then enforce those orders and help get them modified when needed.
The two people directing those staffs have lots of experience in dealing with child support. Herrild has been Friend of Court for about seven years and worked in that office for almost 29 years. Dionne has been child support director since 2001 and worked in that office for 25 years.
Herrild's office has two caseworkers, a secretary and part-time worker. Dionne directs a staff of four case specialists, two financial workers and an administrative assistant.
"Each of my caseworkers has over 600 cases assigned to them," Dionne said. "Our caseload has gone up over the years. We used to have about 2,200 cases, now we've got 2,600."
"We have approximately 1,800 to 1,900 cases," noted Herrild. "Two caseworkers work all those cases. We split them up by the alphabet."
There are two differences in the services the agencies in bordering counties provide.
"We do a lot of different things than what Marinette County does," explained Herrild. "Our caseworkers handle the whole case - custody, parenting time, support - so it's a bigger picture.
"When someone files for a divorce in Menominee County they have to meet with me before going through with the final judgment. I set a temporary order addressing custody, child support and parenting time."
Temporary custody and visitation orders in Marinette County are set by the Family Court Commissioner.
In Marinette County, Dionne's office also schedules paternity tests so the court can determine who the legal father is before a support order is set. She stresses that the DNA test benefits the mother and father.
Dionne and Herrild say the majority of child support paid in their counties is through payroll deduction and then it is issued through direct deposit by the states to the other parent.
They say one of the biggest challenges their staffs face is to get parents failing to pay support to search for employment.
"We're pushing people to get jobs," Herrild said. "We have them do job searching. There really should be no reason for someone not working right now because there's a lot of job openings."
"We have a lot of people doing job searches every week," noted Dionne. "They have to do 10 job searches a week, there's a form they have to fill out on who they contacted, where they went and what the position was.
"Our caseworkers will select a couple of those and send verification letters out to the employer, asking if they are hiring and did that person apply there. We brought a couple people into court already because they weren't truthful and someone is sitting in jail because of that."
Dionne said the sluggish economy has made it more difficult to enforce support orders. Her office collected $6,652,721 in support in fiscal 2012 and $6,605,427 in fiscal 2011.
"When I first started out as director we were in the top 10 counties in Wisconsin in collections and we have not gotten there in the last five years," she said.
"We're still doing OK. We're about 2 percent below where they want us to be, it's been very difficult."
A major part of each county's child support caseload comes from other states, according to Herrild and Dionne.
"It's been crazy lately," Dionne said. "Other states want us to register their order because the paying parent is here in our jurisdiction.
"Lately we've been getting so many orders in which people owe thousands. That goes into our arrears and that's one of the numbers that counts against us if we don't get it."
Herrild said her office also handles lots of interstate cases and submits orders to other states.
"We have to ask them to enforce our order to get mom or dad to pay," she explained. "It works well. If someone is living there and we can give them a good address, they have to have them come into court and take care of them for us."
Dionne and Herrild said many of the interstate cases their caseworkers receive come from each other's offices because lots of people move back and forth between Marinette and Menominee counties.
"We have a close relationship with them and it seems to work well," said Herrild. "We get a lot of cases from them and they get a lot from us. People jump back and forth, it's a big headache."
Herrild and Dionne both say the doors of their offices are always open to their caseworkers to vent or solicit advice on how to resolve a case.
"I tell them no question is a dumb question," explained Herrild. "If they need something answered, or someone ticked them off, I tell them to come and tell me.
"We need to work through it to help the people. Both of them (the caseworkers) handle people well. I have a great office with the people working for me."
Dionne said she encourages her caseworkers to take breaks.
"You need to get away and take a deep breath especially after you've had a couple of calls with people yelling at you," she said. "They're mad and you can't explain to them what you are trying to do.
"I have a very good staff. They're very good with people. They have certain cases that are difficult and they'll come in and bounce ideas off of me. They may say 'this is what I think but I'm deferring to you.'"
Herrild and Dionne said occasionally their offices receive thanks from people they've helped.
"Once in a great while (we get a thank you) and whenever we get one, the worker will make sure I'm aware of it, whether it's been through a phone call or email," Dionne said. "It's very rare because people think you are doing your job and that's what you have to do."
"Absolutely (people thank us)," added Herrild. "We know there's hard times out there but we love it when someone says 'thank you' or calls to apologize. It doesn't happen often, but it's amazing when people say it."