ELKHART — Adding another full-time attorney to the child support division in the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office is expected to help the sixth largest program in the state keep up with a demanding caseload.
Members of the Elkhart County Council recently voted to hire a third deputy prosecutor, who already works part-time in the division. They approved the $75,000 salary during their June 8 meeting as well as hourly pay for a handful of legal assistants.
A staff of close to 30 people, including paralegals, clerical workers and investigators, is responsible for about 10,000 active cases in the child support division, according to Administration Manager Pam Benedix. As they try to track down and secure delinquent child support payments for families, she said their work includes everything from employment and postal verification to relaying court information and determining jurisdiction when other states are involved.
“We have a very dedicated team of caseworkers,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to research a case when it first comes in – verifying the information, making sure everything we have is accurate, making sure we have the information necessary to move forward with establishment or enforcement of an existing order.”
‘They do everything’
Staff members are divided into five units, each alphabetically by the last names of the parents who don’t have custody. Each unit is responsible for just under 2,000 cases, Benedix said.
New cases come to her office in several ways, she said. The local Department of Child Services may refer a parent who has custody and who needs help establishing or enforcing child support, or a parent may apply to the program directly to establish or modify a support order.
They also get cases from other state agencies, as when the custodial parent lives outside of Indiana but the noncustodial parent lives under local jurisdiction.
The paralegals in the office determine what type of action needs to be taken after reviewing the applications and correspondence that come in, as well as judges’ orders. Benedix said the amount of child support a judge awards depends on a lot of things, including parental income and insurance, child care expenses and how overnight stays are divvied up, so every case is different.
Other legal assistants are then tasked with job or address verification, communicating with other state agencies or anything else that needs to be done to establish or pursue a case.
“So it’s very time-consuming for those paralegals to really review the case and determine what type of action needs to be done,” Benedix said. “Within (a) unit, they do everything from locate through establishment, interstate cases, foster care cases. They know everything, they’re not specialized ... they do everything within that unit.”
The last resort
Action is triggered once a noncustodial parent is $500 past due on support. There are several ways the office can collect that money.
“He’s subject to interception of his federal and state (tax) refunds, he’s subject to a license suspension if he hasn’t paid for a period of time. We can intercept lottery winnings. He gets reported to the credit bureau if his arrearage reaches a certain amount,” Benedix said. “So a lot of tools, a lot of functions happen behind the scenes as well.”
She said the staff usually can to turn a case around within 30 days, though interstate cases may take as long as six months.
In the most extreme cases, when a large amount is owed or an amount long past due, charges can be brought against the noncustodial parent for failure to pay child support. Benedix said the office pursues the criminal option only after exhausting civil means, and the custodial parent has to consent to charges being filed.
She said the office currently has 279 active felony cases.
“But that is like the last resort,” she said. “We will try every enforcement technique, civil attempt, before we would file a felony.”
Child support office attorneys spend four to five days a week in court, on as many as 60 to 70 cases a day. Since 2004, all child support cases have gone through the same courtroom, after previously being split among five different courts.
“On Mondays and Thursdays, and Tuesday afternoons, we do enforcement,” she said. “We do our establishment hearings on Tuesday mornings. Wednesday we do our felony non-support. We also hold our in-custodies Monday mornings and also Thursday afternoons. And then Friday is set aside for those cases that may take a little bit more time before the judge, there’s some sort of discrepancy or dispute between the parties.”
What they don’t get involved in are custody and visitation issues, she said.
The office continues to keep tabs on each case for years afterward. They often aren’t closed until the parent signs off on it.
“We are very proactive in our monitoring of the cases. We review them on a regular basis,” she said. “The units each have a certain day that they will pull up these cases, and they will look whether they are waiting for information to come back from another agency, or information to come back from the custodial parent or applicant, or we’re just monitoring the case to make sure they’re on track, making their payments. So there’s a lot going on.”
Nationwide, she said Indiana ranks sixth in pursuing child support cases, based on measures like paternity and support order establishment, collections and cost effectiveness. Elkhart County’s office is the sixth largest in the state based on the number of cases and the population of the county.
Return on investment
The services of the child support office are free of charge to families. Officials decided to waive the $25 application fee about two years ago, Benedix said.
Since 2004, when they made the switch to having a single court handle all cases, the division has participated in the federal Title IV-D program. That allows them to receive a 2/3 reimbursement on what they spend.
Reimbursements from Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, which is administered by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, are meant to cover the costs of adjudicating child support and paternity issues when hearings are handled by someone other than “judges” under state law.
The county sees a more than tenfold return on money spent to pursue child support payments, Prosecuting Attorney Vicki Becker told County Council at the June 8 meeting. She said for every dollar spent, the office is able to return $13.41 to families.
That return increases to $39.44 when you factor in the 2/3 reimbursement.
“So that’s a pretty good return on county money,” she told the council. “And in light of the partnership with the federal government, what we brought to families in Elkhart County was just under $23 million last year.”
Councilwoman Tina Wenger said support payments secured by the child support division eases the potential burden on the county.
“Now, if we collect more child support, that goes back to the family,” Wenger said. “And if they have money to feed their children, and to educate them or house them, the less we have to worry about them ending up on the streets and us taking care of them.”