Three months ago, we were Digging Deeper into a multi-million dollar problem here in Northeast Indiana: Parents Who Don’t Pay Child Support.
And the response to our story was overwhelming.
Today it is one of the most-shared Digging Deeper reports. We were flooded with comments, messages, e-mails and phone calls – our viewers shared their own experiences with the child support system.
And in message after message – a recurring pattern: deadbeat parents go weeks – even months – without paying a dime. Then right before their court hearing, they offer a small chunk of change and get to walk out of court a free woman or man. We call it the "Deadbeat Discount."
We first met Monica Moreheard on a school night in mid-August. Homework assignments serve as a sobering reminder for Monica that she can’t afford the calculators her twin daughters need for math class.
"It’s hard," said Morehead. "It is so depressing. That is a very good word for it. Depressing – knowing that my kids don’t have completely everything that they need."
Morehead says she often goes without shoes to make ends meet.
"We struggle all the time actually," said Morehead. "To get them the stuff that they need, but we do our best."
Morehead shares custody of the twins with their father who owes more than $7,000 in child support, even after the county lowered his payments to just $25 a week.
"It is insanely expensive to raise kids," says Morehead. "And $25 a week, that’s $100 to help raise two children. And it’s not enough."
Morehead says she’s not getting any help from the agency in charge of enforcing child support: the county prosecutor.
"They just want to get the hearing done and over with," says Morehead. "It’s supposed to be a 15 minute hearing. You’re in and out in 5 minutes. They don’t care. They don’t show any type of compassion in the courtroom."
She says the twins’ father has been in court four times now for not paying those $25 a week.
"It’s frustrating," says Morehead. "It’s aggravating, it’s annoying having to go through this."
Each time, Morehead says he pays a little bit down – far less than what he owes – right before the hearing, and then walks right out the door.
"The system is completely broken," says Morehead. "And it would take a complete overhaul to fix it."
Morehead isn’t alone.
Shaun Cook says he’s owed more than $70,000 in child support. And Sarah Spice is owed more than $9,300.
All three parents are families with the "Deadbeat Discount."
"It’s broken," says Cook. "Too many loopholes."
"No matter how many thousands of people we help," says McAlexander. "If we don’t help you, then you’re going to feel frustrated and feel the system isn’t working."
In a sit down interview, Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander defends his department’s efforts to collect child support.
Alexis Gray: "You would disagree with that assessment – that the system is flawed, needs an overhaul and has too many loopholes?"
Mike McAlexander: "Yeah I would disagree. I mean is it perfect? Certainly not. And it can be messed up on any given day, but it’s also a system that takes a long view."
A long view that has 80,000 active cases on any given day, and has prosecutors and judges weighing whether a child support offender, or a violent one, should get a cot in an overcrowded jail.
McAlexander: "If the person walked in, hadn’t paid a dime for a year, and then puts $200 or $300 down, the judge isn’t going to put them in jail."
Gray: "But that’s exactly what the complaint is! They feel the co-parent is getting off the hook for paying substantially less than what they should have been paying."
McAlexander: "And they’re right. OK. What is the solution to that?"
He says the entire system is under strain.
McAlexander: "We have a waiting list now on getting public defenders to do the cases."
Gray: "So what’s the message to the families then? Essentially are you saying you’re on your own?"
McAlexander: "No you’re not on your own, cause we have a lot of things that we’re doing all the time on those cases."
That answer isn’t sitting well with the families we interviewed.
"There’s no consequence," says Spice, and she says deadbeats know it.
"They do know," says Spice. "You can walk in with an excuse and a receipt that you paid that day, and they’ll let it slide."
Cook says by not doubling down on deadbeats, the county sends a dangerous message.
"If all they’re doing is paying you know $10 on a $50 or $60/week child support order," says Cook. "That’s not really effort. That’s more of a Get Out Of Jail Free Card. It feels like the state is actually rewarding them."
Morehead and Spice agree.
Spice gets that jailing deadbeats costs taxpayers money, but she says she’s a taxpayer too and believes harsher punishments would deter parents from skipping a child support payment.
"Make it so that it has to be consistent between the court dates," says Spice. "Like you pay every week."
Gray: "Or else what?"
Spice: "Put them in jail."
"It is frustrating for our people too," says McAlexander. "I don’t understand how you can have children and not feel an obligation to take care of them."
A frustration that takes away the most from those who can least afford it.
Morehead and the twins’ father had another court hearing just yesterday. Once again, she says he made a payment right before court, on those $25 a week. And once again, he walked out of court – out of compliance – and out of jail.
He still owes her more than $7,000 in child support to help provide for the twins.