Sunday, November 9, 2003

Parents pay up to avoid prison

But support obligation even tougher after stretch

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Christopher Thomas and his lawyer, Chris McEvilley, stand before Judge Melba Marsh on Oct. 30.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Christopher Thomas walked out of court 10 days ago, ordered to pay $547 a month to support two of his seven kids or face jail and risk losing his full-time job.

That leaves the 32-year-old nursing assistant about $500 to live on each month.

Prosecutors and child advocates say Thomas and other former delinquent parents like him have to pay for their children, no matter how tough or expensive it may be. And when faced with jail time, most pay something, according to an Enquirer analysis of 86 Hamilton County cases filed against delinquent parents in October 2001.

The analysis helps answer a persistent legal question: Are prosecutions of wayward parents a good way of getting child support to kids, or do they lead to criminal convictions and jail times that make it harder for some parents to pay?

In Hamilton County, the analysis shows that 73 of the 86 parents paid 72 percent of the $111,514 total owed to 141 kids. That's better than other averages: Nationally, parents made good on a little more than half of all child-support payments in 2002. In Ohio last year, about two-thirds of all child-support payments were made, according to state and federal studies.

A lot is riding on child-support efforts. More than a quarter of American children live in a household in which one parent is absent, the U.S. Census says. In southwest Ohio last year, there were 123,301 cases of court-ordered child support involving $280.1 million - more than half owed to Hamilton County kids.

While most parents pay their child support, those who repeatedly ignore orders from the Ohio Child Support Enforcement Agency to pay up can face a felony conviction and prison time.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen calls that group the worst of the worst.

"By the time it comes to us for criminal prosecution, everything else has been tried," he says.

But threatening those parents with prison can be tricky, say some who see the fallout from bringing parents into criminal court.

Parents in prison aren't holding down jobs to help support children. And felony convictions hinder offenders from finding jobs when they're released, says Hamilton County's public defender, Lou Stigari.

"When they come out of prison they're in a worse situation than when they went in,'' he says. "It's a vicious circle.''

Felony cases

Allen and his counterparts in other Greater Cincinnati counties hold press conferences to announce sweeps aimed at making parents pay by charging them with criminal non-support, a felony carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison. In the past five years 1,222 people have been charged with non-support in Hamilton County; all but 142 were convicted and ordered to pay up.

But what happens to them and their children later doesn't usually grab headlines.

The Enquirer analysis of the outcome of the 2001 Hamilton County sweep shows that:

• Some of the 86 parents owed as much as $35,000; others a few thousand. Only two parents paid in full. Nine paid nothing.

• Four cases were dismissed, three because DNA tests showed the person charged was not the child's parent.

• Of the $111,514 owed to children, $80,692 has been paid.

• Eighty-two of the offenders were dads; four were moms. Ages ranged from 23 to 57.

• Twenty-six served at least some prison time; four others spent time in jail at the Hamilton County Justice Center.

There's no simple answer to making deadbeat parents pay, says Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Melba Marsh, who presided over Thomas' case.

By the time such cases reach criminal court, a parent usually owes thousands of dollars and can have monthly payments topping $1,000, Marsh says.

"Even if you give them another chance, you know when they walk out the door it's nearly impossible," she says. "They have no skills, no work history, no job, little motivation and a felony charge on their record."

Almost daily, Common Pleas judges throughout Greater Cincinnati see a parent who is behind in child-support payments. In Hamilton County last year there were 80,770 court-ordered, child-support cases involving $159 million in payments. Butler County handled 22,459 cases involving $57 million; Clermont County had 11,485 cases involving $35.7 million; Warren County had 8,587 cases involving $28.4 million.

As president of Child Advocacy for Rights and Equity, Carrie Davis sees struggling custodial parents fighting for support they're owed and those who owe the money struggling to navigate the system every day.

"More parents should be criminally prosecuted," she says. "Prison is a wake-up call."

But even Allen says his office can't prosecute all deadbeat parents.

"Prosecuting everyone would overwhelm the system," he says.

Davis says parents should be prosecuted before back payments grow into the tens of thousands of dollars. "(They) need to know that just like (they) can't physically or emotionally abuse a child, you cannot financially abuse them."

44 months

Some cases are so egregious that judges have no choice but to jail parents.

A Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge got so angry at an Avondale man who rarely paid child support to his teenage son that he sent the man to prison for 44 months in September 2002 - the longest prison sentence for non-support in Hamilton County history.

The boy was one of four children owed a total of $64,106. His father had been placed on probation seven times for failure to pay. He hadn't paid anything since 1997.

The following month, Marsh sentenced the father of 10 children by seven women to spend 27 months in prison. He owed $101,000.

In February 2001, another judge sent a man to prison for 14 months - the fifth time he'd been imprisoned. He owed $28,111.

Forcing parents to support their children when they don't want to will never be easy, say prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and child advocates.

But some changes to the system could help.

Stigari says children and their custodial parents are entitled to support, but current law makes it difficult for parents to pay.

"The law is crazy,'' he says. "It allows for prosecution in more than one court.''

Currently, the Child Support Enforcement Agency can determine that a parent isn't paying and can order child support to be made. If payments still aren't made, the agency can suspend driving privileges, garnishee wages or seize tax refunds and other cash distributions.

Last August, the Hamilton County agency requested that the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles suspend the licenses of 257 parents for non-payment of child support. Of those, 67 licenses were reinstated because parents made payments. From those parents, the agency collected $86,082.

Parents also can find themselves in juvenile court or domestic relations court, where they can be held in civil contempt and sent to jail for a short time.

Using the criminal courts and the threat of a felony conviction and prison time is a last resort.

Davis says uniform guidelines should be established. "In one county, parents who pay $100 get their license back. Another county says the entire amount owed must be paid first," Davis says.

Laurie Petrie, a spokeswoman for the Hamilton County's Child Support Enforcement Agency, says parents are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Marsh says charging people with non-support in criminal court is fine, but legislators should give more power to judges in domestic relations court and juvenile court. Those judges can hold parents in contempt if they fail to pay as ordered, but that's punishable by just a short jail sentence.

"They're the ones who have to work with the parents," Marsh says. "They should have more power to make them pay."

Stigari said it boils down to keeping the parents working.

"There could be a work-release program at the jail," Stigari says. "People keep a job, and the children can get the money they need."

One dad's story

Thomas is glad Judge Marsh didn't jail him, but he says he still struggles to keep up.

He sleeps on a friend's couch because he can't afford rent for his own apartment. He doesn't own a car and relies on friends to drive him to work.

"There's no end in sight," he says.

He has seven children between the ages of 3 and 13 by four mothers. His court-ordered support is for two of his children. Thomas and the other three mothers have worked out their own agreements: He carries one child on his medical insurance, pays for another child's day care and buys clothes for the others.

He was charged in the 2001 sweep after falling $12,000 behind in support. He promised Marsh he would pay up - $210 in monthly support, plus another $337 to pay off the accumulated debt - and she put him on probation.

It's tough to maintain the court-ordered payments with his $9.35-an-hour job, but Thomas doesn't want to go to prison. Paying gives him a sense of pride, but he says it takes more than money to be a good father.

He never sees the two children to whom he sends the money because they live in Atlanta and he can't afford a plane ticket. Calls are rare since he works nights and his children go to school in his off hours.

"I feel like a deadbeat father," Thomas says. "When I do see them I can't afford to even buy them a present for their birthday.

"The system feels it balances out, but it doesn't make me feel any better because the children don't understand," he adds. "It will take them years to understand."

For now Thomas remains on probation. He says he's doing his best to pay what he can.

"I want my kids to carry my name proudly," he says. "At least I can say I tried."


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