by Aaron Mueller
Tom Watson doesn’t like the term “deadbeat” to describe parents who are behind on child support. He prefers “dead-broke.”
Watson, director of the Berrien County Friend of the Court, said Berrien County has been struggling with collections of child support cases with arrearages. In fiscal year 2011, the county could only collect at least one payment on 56 percent of those cases, Watson told county commissioners Thursday.
Watson blames much of the problem on unemployment and the lagging economy, although he admits there are some who intentionally dodge making payments. Improving that statistic would mean more money for Friend of the Court (FOC). County FOCs receive funding from the state via the federal government based on performance in five areas.
One of those factors is arrearage collection. In order to qualify for 100 percent of available funding, counties must collect payments on 80 percent of cases with arrearages. Berrien County is lagging behind.
“This is an area we really need to target and do a better job,” Watson said. The FOC has tried a variety of programs to encourage payment, including booting vehicles and seizing property of offenders. So far there have been six vehicles booted — a number Watson wants to see increase — and 15 seized items auctioned.
“We are thinking about what button can we push for individuals who have not obeyed a court order? We need to remind them they have a child,” he said. On the positive side, the Berrien County FOC has a high “efficiency ratio,” which measures the number of dollars collected in child support for each dollar of program expense. Berrien’s efficiency ratio is $8.85, in comparison to the state average of $6.18.
“We collect a lot of money with less staff,” Watson said of his 37-employee team.
Increasing case load
Statewide the number of child support cases is on the rise. The number of cases has increased from 934,000 in 2008 to 1.2 million in 2011, a 9.2 percent increase. Watson again says he believes the economy is partially to blame with financial problems leading to marital stress and divorce. In 2011 the office also rated higher than the state average in collecting child support by court order and establishing paternity in cases.