On entering child-support court, the lean, T-shirt-clad subcontractor pulled a cash envelope from his jeans pocket and counted out 15 $100 bills.
A Domestic Relations officer held each note to the light, checking for counterfeits before crediting the $1,500 to the more than $14,000 the man owed.
“The pattern continues, doesn’t it?” Judge David Workman asked the father, who owed court-ordered support to three women. “You only pay when I bring you in here.”
Finding the Lebanon resident in contempt of payment orders, Workman ordered him jailed for 30 days, or until he came up with $700 more.
As a deputy sheriff applied handcuffs, the shocked father told the judge he had additional cash in his pocket. The deputy slipped fingers into the pocket and extracted $490 before taking the defendant away.
Ordinarily, child support in Lancaster County gets collected like clockwork — far from a courtroom. The county’s 100-worker Domestic Relations Section is a $6.7 million operation that enforces rules for support whenever a couple living apart can’t agree, collecting $59 million a year, largely without a hitch.
But as the scene that played out in Courtroom 9 earlier this month underscored, things can get serious for those who do fall behind.
“We don’t have debtors prison in the United States,” Workman said. “However, support is the one bill that if you don’t pay it, you can be put in jail.”
This article is part of LNP’s We the People series that explore stories suggested by readers.
We heard from a father who is owed $13,700 in support from a college-educated woman who, the dad said, refuses to work. He wanted a story answering this question: “Why are delinquent parents not held responsible for child support?”
“You can't force someone to work,” the father said, “but there's got to be a better way to hold people accountable for the children they brought into the world.”
The father’s situation is frustrating, maddening even. But his case is one of the exceptions that don’t necessarily mean the child support system here is broken. The government, in the end, can only do so much when a parent chooses to slight a child and purposefully evade collection efforts.
In Lancaster County, the vast majority of the nearly 17,000 noncustodial parents who have a support order do, in fact, pay on time and don’t need to be strong-armed into accountability.
The Domestic Relations Section sets a monthly payment based on a state formula, and money is swept automatically from paychecks or other sources of regular income. It gets deposited into the bank account or loaded onto a debit card of the parent raising the child.
But that’s little comfort for those parents who are owed support and see it arrive sporadically, if at all. There are many noncustodial parents, particularly those who don’t earn a regular wage, who fall thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars behind.
When that happens, parents raising the children often struggle to make ends meet and feel like the system is failing them. Some have to rely on government assistance.
“My youngest gets free lunches at school,” one mother, a paralegal who is owed $59,000, told LNP. “And I can’t afford to provide insurance.”
When her daughter called from college needing money for books the mother couldn’t afford, she wept softly, hoping the daughter couldn’t hear.
The Domestic Relations office says it does the best it can, with the resources available, to enforce all child support orders and collect every dollar custodial parents are entitled to.
Federal statistics for 2016 show Pennsylvania to be the best in the nation at enforcing support orders, collecting 84 percent of payments on time, compared to the national average of 65 percent. Iowa was a distant second at 74 percent.
Lancaster County’s collections rate of 84 percent matched Pennsylvania’s, according to the state Department of Human Services, showing an improvement from 75 percent in 2006.
Why has Pennsylvania been successful? Human Services spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac pointed to innovative procedures, collaborative management, technology and training. Federal and state laws offer Domestic Relations a menu of tools beyond wage attachment to enforce support orders. They include:
- Orders to deduct payments from unemployment compensation, Worker’s Compensation, Social Security disability benefits and some pension benefits.
- Intercepts of federal and state income tax refunds and lottery winnings over $2,500.
- Seizure of assets from accounts with banks and financial institutions.
- Liens on real estate or lump sum monetary awards from a lawsuit or disability claim.
- Suspension of driver licenses, professional licenses and hunting and boating licenses.
- Denial of a new or renewed passport.
Melissa Youse, deputy director of the county’s Domestic Relations Section, said the office makes use of all of the above and looks for other ways to be more effective.
Earlier this year, for example, Domestic Relations funded collection sweeps. Deputy sheriffs fanned out five times in five weeks in January and February to knock on doors and serve bench warrants on parents who failed to appear for support hearings.
The parents who the deputies found went to jail for up to 48 hours before getting before a judge.
Word of the sweeps got out, motivating some delinquent parents to call Domestic Relations and find out how much they had to pay to avoid arrest.
“We got a very nice response,” Youse said. “We were able to get defendants who we weren’t having contact with get back into” making steady payments or, at least, looking for work.
The initiative shrunk the backlog of 470 warrants to 376, a 20-percent reduction.
More sweeps are planned, Youse said, because the backlog as of last week had rebounded to 485.
A warrant sweep is no help, however, when a parent leaves the state. Lancaster County in those cases transfers enforcement to the state where the parent is believed to reside.
Because Lancaster County Court becomes the backstop when collections go sour, dozens of times a week noncustodial parents, usually men, appear before a judge to explain why they’ve fallen behind and what they’re going to do about it.
The contempt hearings are a case-by-case slog — thousands a year — driven by the rising rate of out-of-wedlock births, the vagaries of the job market and, finally, the degree of commitment each delinquent parent brings to work and to a child he may not have wanted and may not be allowed to see.
“What happened in June and July?” Judge Workman asked a construction worker who had failed to pay any support those two months and September as well.
“I took some time off,” the man replied.
“Why?” Workman asked. “Does a child take off from eating?”
Workman and other judges recognize there can be legitimate reasons for falling behind.
A parent may be self-employed or work as a subcontractor who is paid only when a job is completed.
Some are laid-off, get hurt or fall ill. Others, especially those who broke the law or don't speak English, struggle to find any work, let alone work that pays enough to help raise a child.
When defendants end up in court, judges will set specific steps for them to take to get back on track. Judges then order them to return after a couple of months to report on what they’ve done to obtain steady income and resume paying support.
If he sees good faith efforts to end a practice of insufficient payments, Workman will exercise patience, bringing the defendant back to court again and again to reinforce the positive behavior or to threaten a sanction for any backsliding.
Jail is a last resort. Six months is the maximum sentence.
“The people who are owed the support want them put in jail,” Workman said. “I have to balance that. Are they willfully in contempt? Are they having a difficult time? After a while you have a real feel for are they playing games with me, or is this something I need to give them a little bit of time.”
“But I can’t force someone to be responsible,” he said. “There are some cases where they have children to five, six different women, and they’re working a minimum wage job. I can suggest to them perhaps it’s not wise to keep having children. I can’t force them not to.”
A Lancaster County mother who works 40 hours a week as a sales representative and is going to school to become a dental assistant is owed $7,500 she said she really could use to help raise her 6-year-old son. She said she was glad when a judge this month threatened the father with jail time.
Judge Jeffrey Reich gave the father until Nov. 1 to pay $610, the equivalent of about two months of support. If he can’t come up with it, he’ll sit for 10 days in Lancaster County Prison.
But even if the father does pay, the mom said she has little faith he’ll become regular.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that if I get it, great,” she said. But she has learned not to expect it and do the best she can on her own.
“If it comes down to getting another job to make my son happy,” she said, “then I’ll do that.”
The effort to support her two children with little support from their father is also a source of pain for an Ephrata paralegal.
The system’s efforts to hold the father accountable became more complex after the mother learned of his recent move to Pensacola, Florida, out of reach of a warrant that could jail him in Lancaster County.
The father’s last payment — it was $76.11 — was in January. He owes $59,000.
“There’s no hope that I’ll ever see that money,” the mother said. “In my head I’ve written it off just so I don’t stress about it every day.”