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Seeking support for children

News-Times, News-Times
Published 8:00 pm, Friday, October 31, 2008
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The Child Support Court, at 71 Main St., is not yet in session on this recent morning, but the presence of the young boy brings home the reason for its existence -- to assure that innocent children are supported and cared for, financially and otherwise.

People find themselves here for many reasons. It can be anything from trying to prove paternity, to getting an unwilling parent to make good on promised payments.

In other cases, a parent is willing to pay child support, but may not have the means. Whatever the situation, it's often an emotional experience.

While Child Support Court is open daily in larger cities such as New Haven, it's only open on Wednesdays in Danbury. Jeannie Bundrick is manager of the Court Services Center here.

"It can be frustrating if the parent not paying is found in contempt and can get a court-appointed attorney, while the parent collecting can't," said Bundrick.

"Collecting support payments can be as difficult as the paying parent wants to make it and often, the paying parent has little funds to draw on to pay," she added.

When court opened for session on a recent Wednesday morning, a New Milford woman was trying to collect support payments from her child's father, who now lives in Florida. It was a frustrating experience.

The father had left a high-paying job at Kimberly-Clark in New Milford, where he earned some $65,000 annually, to move to Florida. According to his attorney, Murray Kessler, he had moved there to care for his mother, an older woman with macular degeneration. Legally blind, his mother needed her son's help, Kessler said.

Kessler was in court seeking a modification to the man's required weekly child support payments. At the time, the father was required to also pay a small weekly payment toward an outstanding $26,000 in back support. He couldn't make the court-appointed payments because he had only been able to find a low-paying job in Florida, earning $8.50 an hour.

"This has been going on for four years," the mother told the magistrate, Linda Wihbey. "He hasn't made any attempt to pay. I have a child to support. He has a lawyer. I can't afford one. It's not fair."

Wihbey said she fully understood the woman's situation, and that the father, while "laudable" in his care of his mother, still was responsible for the financial support of their child.

That said, Wihbey needed to balance the equation of a child and mother needing financial support, and a father in a seemingly untenable position of not having the money to pay the court-appointed amount required.

A compromise was eventually reached. The father would make lower support payments, but only temporarily. The case would be reviewed again in December and only if he made punctual payments every week, would the lower payment rate become permanent.

"It won't happen," said the mother, wiping a tear from her eye as she left the court. She apparently didn't believe her child's father would respect the magistrate's ruling.

But she was not without resources. Though a lawyer was not appointed for her, Support Enforcement Services (SES) did handle her case on her behalf.

SES is part of the judicial branch, court operations division. Its officers work closely with state and federal agencies to help parents enforce and modify their child support orders. It also assists parents in obtaining financial and medical support for their children by providing information to the parents and the court.

SES has access to data bases to check financial records like Department of Labor quarterly earnings records and tax information.

It can act as an investigator, too, gathering information so the court can determine if a modification in support payments should be made. And it can help determine if a contempt charge against a parent not paying support will hold up as being willful refusal to pay when money, in fact, is available to send.

In that case -- and if it can be proven the nonpaying parent knew about the contempt order -- he or she can be penalized to bring payment about. That parent can even be sent to jail until a certain sum of money is paid, said Charisse Hutton, director for Support Enforcement Services for the state of Connecticut.

"Many of the parents coming to Child Support Court are poor," Hutton added. "Most paying and custodial parents don't have a lot of resources, and may have limited job skills and education. But the reality is, they still have a child that needs support. That's the more likely scenario."

"Seldom is it a case of a man who's just bought a new 2008 sports car who's hiding that fact and not making payments," Hutton said. "Often they are people just making it (financially) themselves."

Chief Family Support Magistrate Sandra Sosnoffbaird said the Child Support Court is for divorced parents, those who are separated or not married, and parents striving to prove paternity to have a child support order established and then enforced.

There are times an attorney is appointed by the court. The magistrate can appoint an attorney to be the guardian of the petitioning parent in the case of a parent who is under 18. One can also be appointed to protect a child's interests when there are unusual legal circumstances.

In addition, the magistrate is required to appoint an attorney for a nonpaying parent if there is the possibility of incarceration of that parent and that parent is indigent.

"All of the magistrates recognize that the receipt of child support lifts children out of poverty, has a positive effect on children, and helps them achieve in school," Sosnoffbaird said. "And if the father is paying child support, there is a connection there between him and the children."

Still she acknowledged that at times the magistrates' hands are tied.

"Even though you can have a serious case of noncompliance in support payment, if you can't make the necessary findings, you have no authority to act."

Despite that fact, both Sosnoffbaird and Hutton encourage people to talk to SES if they have concerns about receiving child support payments.

"Children need the financial and emotional support of both parents," Hutton said. "If a parent needs state help to make sure that a fair amount is paid, they should call us. Don't try to figure it out yourself."

For further information on Support Enforcement Services, call (800) 228-KIDS.