Texas gets a 10-to-1 return on child support spending, but things could be better

Photo by Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

I watch people fill the Aransas County Courtroom, and know I will be entertained, albeit in a cynical sort of way.

Nah, it’s not some murder trial where procedures are tedious and boring. Today is Deadbeat Spouses Day, or to be more accurate and less politically correct, Deadbeat Dads Day. The judge, however, refers to it as “Child Support Court.”

The bailiff calls out the names of each parent. Observers know that the closer the parents sit to each other, the more likely their case will go smoothly. About 8 or 9 cases in, a mom’s name is read. She says, “here.” But when the presumed dad is called, a large man jumps up and bellows “What are you talking about? I don’t even know her name!”

I can’t resist, blurting, “Doesn’t a gentleman ask first?” People laugh, the judge gives me a look that’s half rebuke, half smirk. He’s wondering just how many problems he will face on today’s agenda.

At this point, deputies enter with the “jail chain”; prisoners arrested for contempt after falling years behind in their support obligations. They can be sentenced for up to 180 days for each non-payment. Although they don’t look savory to me, there are always a few with girlfriends in the courtroom who smile, wink and otherwise catch their attention. Some prisoners I recognize from past cases: one in particular, who along with a couple of burglaries had contempt cases deriving from several children and various moms. As I walk by, his girlfriend approaches and asks if I can arrange a place for them to talk. I look down at her extended belly, shake my head and say “Wait in line.” For that I receive “You don’t know John; this isn’t going to happen with us.”

Who says romance is dead?

There is no standard and little predictability as to who goes to jail and who doesn’t. This lack of uniformity is exacerbated by huge disparity between different judges, assistant attorneys general, and counties.

I saw one Corpus Christi judge confront a mom who after a few chances was $26.41 behind: “Bailiff, take her keys.” Off to jail she went.

More recently, back home in El Paso, I was privately hired to prosecute a dad who was more than 40,000 behind.

“Did you pay any support for the last three years?” I asked him.

“No.”

“Did you attend NBA and NFL Playoffs during this time at hundreds of dollars per ticket?”

“Yes.”

I was certain his nonchalant attitude meant jail, but the judge ordered delayed commitment (probation). My client was cool: “This way he can work and pay me back.” I scratched my head in disbelief. El Paso is just a laid-back type of place.

A similar issue arises with the AG’s Special Collections Unit. They suspend the professional licenses of those who are way behind in support payments. “How can they work and earn the money to pay support?” asks Houston Attorney Thomas Simchak.

The attorney general’s office is bogged down by the voluminous caseload. In an initial child support hearing, a potential deadbeat can claim, “I want to fight for custody,” or, “I need more time to hire an attorney.” The attorney general can’t get involved in custody determinations, so these claims cancel a hearing and cause substantial delay. In addition, delinquents can hide and never get served for court. Calli Baldwin Gerrish, formerly with the attorney general’s office and now practicing in Houston, claims the AG is pretty much “useless” in these situations.

On the other hand, several assistant AG’s, most of whom are excellent attorneys, pointed out the millions in back payments they obtained and the many grateful families that have survived because of their efforts. Their office was specific: $4,221,976,348 in back support was collected in 2017 at a cost of $409,668,749. That’s $10.31, earned for every dollar spent.

Nevertheless, there is much room for improvement as so many families continue to receive no payments from absent parents. For starters, the attorney general should focus on child support issues, and eschew political lawsuits which only cost taxpayers money. After all, isn’t a child’s food and clothing also a worthy “Family Value”?

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Texas gets a 10-to-1 return on child support spending, but things could be better Show All