“Some days, all they do is yell at you,” Heather Hemmer says. “The mother will get mad because she’s not getting the money. The father will get mad because he’s not making enough to make his payments and pay rent.
“So we get it from both sides. They don’t think you’re doing your job, or they think you’re doing it too well.”
Welcome to Hemmer's world as a child-support officer in Hennepin County. Her job is to track down people – usually fathers – who quit paying the child support they’ve been ordered to pay.
Child-support payments are crucial; they often are the difference that allows a family to be self-sufficient – or not. In Hennepin County, about 57 percent of the families receiving child support used to be on welfare.
If a mother receives child support but remains on public assistance – which is the case about 14 percent of the time in Hennepin County – child support directly reduces the taxpayers’ outlay, dollar for dollar. In 2012, the county estimates, it collected $3.25 for every $1 it spent on enforcement.
Job market takes its toll
In the four years Hemmer has been enforcing child-support orders, she has found very few fathers who deliberately evade their obligation if they have the money. “A lot of people will refer to my clients as deadbeat dads,” she says. “That’s not accurate.
“A lot of people are doing the best they can. They’re still involved in their children’s lives. They know they have an obligation. But they don’t have the resources. You can’t pay child support without a job.”
When a court orders child-support payments, it sets the amount at a level the parent should be able to afford, based on actual income or potential income.
Payments are withheld from the parent’s paycheck. The employer sends the amount to the state, which then sends it to the other parent. In 2012, the state collected $594 million in child-support payments.
In Hennepin County, about two-thirds of the 55,000 parents who are ordered to pay child support do so, the county says. That means about one-third don’t.
Parents who wind up in Hemmer’s enforcement files are in that group. They have fallen at least four months behind on what they owe.
Getting payments on track
“Typically, their life circumstances change,” Hemmer says. “They had a good job 10 years ago, but they lose that job. They may not be able to find jobs in their skill set. They may only be able to get a part-time job at minimum wage. A lot of them are working for temporary agencies.
“There’s individual choice involved, but there’s also a societal role. It’s hard to find jobs that let people pay their bills. They may not be able to take care of themselves and their children. They get so far behind, they give up.”
By this time, a collections officer like Shannon Wegscheid also is involved. She’s in contact with the delinquent parent at least every 30 days. She examines income and expenses, and tries to work out a payment plan that gets the parent caught up.
Child-support officers don’t have the individual authority to change payments; only a court can do that. However, if the father can afford a smaller amount, officers will work with him so he can file the motion that’s necessary to reduce his payment. Sometimes, Wegscheid can refer fathers to programs that help them with financial management.
If the father doesn’t get on top of his obligation, the amount that’s past due keeps piling up. So does the interest. And that obligation doesn’t disappear when the child turns 18.
One form of persuasion or another
“We really do try to empower people to take responsibility for their situation,” Wegscheid says. Her biggest frustration is when delinquent parents ignore her phone calls and missed-payment letters. “Some people do think if they ignore it, it will just go away.” It doesn’t.
Instead, collections officers enforce a strict state timetable that will lead to the suspension of the delinquent parent’s driver’s license.
That, Wegscheid says, only makes things worse. “It really affects their life. A lot of people say, ‘How can you expect them to work if they don’t have a driver’s license?’
“I hate to see them lose a job if they lose their driver’s license. But in Minnesota, a driver’s license is a privilege. If you’re not supporting your kid, do you get that privilege?”
If suspending the driver’s license doesn’t bring compliance, the parent can be cited for contempt of court and face jail time.
Caught in the middle
Wegscheid and Hemmer say it is never easy navigating the emotions involved in child-support cases.
“Nobody wants to be told how to support their family,” Wegscheid says. “Whether they’re cooperating or not, most parents’ goal is to provide for their kids one way or another. But there are situations where they both feel the system is bent against them. I can understand that. Rules are rules. Dealing with that can be frustrating.”
One of the biggest challenges, she says, is overcoming “this perception we are sexist or on someone’s side.”
The reality, she says, is “we’re trying to help the whole family. But we also are enforcement officers. To the person supposed to be paying support, it doesn’t sound neutral.”