Wednesday May 17, 2000
DO you remember when some low-income Charleston men complained that 65 percent of their paychecks were being seized for child support? The men had fallen behind in monthly payments while out of work, so state collectors began taking two-thirds of their pay after they found new jobs.
That struck us as extreme - too severe to be workable. Who could survive on one-third of a modest salary?
Here's another example of harsh state collection efforts:
Wayne Patterson was embroiled in some Charleston controversies, including a dispute over child support. At first, he refused to cooperate with state collectors. Then he opened his records to them.
The child support agency ruled that he owed $26,285 in back payments (at a rate of $270 a month). Patterson protested in court that this demand was cruelly unreasonable. He was jailed 67 days for contempt during this confrontation.
After an investigation, Family Law Master Charles Phalen Jr. and Circuit Judge Herman Canady concluded that Patterson was unfairly victimized. Phalen wrote that "this family law master has been led to believe by the Child Support Enforcement Division, formerly the Child Advocate Office," that Patterson had a high income and the child's mother had a low income.
Phalen and Canady signed an order last year saying "there has been fraud or other judicially cognizable circumstances in procuring the original child support award." The order said state collectors exaggerated Patterson's income and underreported the mother's income. The order cut Patterson's monthly payments by half, to $144, and lowered his back debt to $8,000.
The agency appealed to the state Supreme Court - and now the high court has refused to hear the petition, thereby upholding the circuit court verdict.
This outcome should alert courts across the state to possible unfairness in child support collections. If one case was based on improper figures - and the father was charged twice too much, and jailed 67 days for it - perhaps it also occurs in other cases.
America has a horrendous rate of divorce and unwed parenthood. Millions of U.S. children are raised by single mothers. Rightly, the nation has cracked down on "deadbeat dads" who don't support youngsters they beget. New federal laws require nationwide child support collections.
However, the system must be fair, reasonable and workable - not ruthlessly punitive.
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