We hear a lot of talk these days about "putting kids first." This is a currently popular nugget for politicians. We also hear it from school administrators, child protection service agencies, church leaders - people to whom the welfare of the children SHOULD be a priority.
I received this letter from my younger sister over the weekend. I am reprinting it in its entirety with her permission. Her plight is not a singular one.
"On September 27, 2002, after a painstaking two year battle, I was granted a divorce from the father of my two children and obtained an order for $175 per week in child support. On September 27, 2002, my now ex-husband quit his job and went to work for another company that would pay him cash, to avoid having his wages garnished for the support of our children.
After about two months of receiving no payment of child support, I started to get really angry and called a friend who now lives in Tennessee but has a child support case in Illinois and had been through the same situation. I needed to know where to go next. She told me about the State of Illinois Disbursement Unit. I thanked her for their number, which no state or county agency I had contacted previously had given me, and called them up. The woman I got on the phone was extremely courteous and friendly, she asked me my Social Security number, pulled up my information, but offered me no help. She stated that their sole purpose was to collect the child support, mark it down as paid and forward it to the rightful receipient. The SDU does not enforce child support orders. When I asked what was it I could do, she said I had to "sign up" with the Illinois Dept. of Child Support Enforcement. She not only directed me to their website so I could download forms, but she mailed some out to me as well.
I downloaded the application and took note that I made too much money on my own (a mere $32,000 per year at the time) to qualify for assistance without having to pay a fee. The maximum fee in the State of Illinois is $25 in the form of cashier's check or money order. After filling out the form, complete with my Social Security number, obtaining a $1.50 cashier's check from my bank and making copies of everything, I sent my application off. Forewarned by the nice girl at the SDU, I peeked in my mailbox everyday hoping for the letter from the Illinois Dept. of Public Aid/Child Support Enforcement Unit stating when my appointment would be.
While this was going on, I applied for a new position within my current company. This position would guarantee a higher salary in the future, higher status and profile, and also a securer future for my 9 and 7 year old children. I realized essentially that I was going to have to "go at this alone". I got the great job and my transition was set for Monday, January 13, 2003. Two days after accepting the position, I finally received my appointment letter from the Dept. of Child Support. They scheduled my appointment for Monday, January 13, 2003. But, very helpfully, they did indicate on the letter that if this appointment interfered with my daycare and/or work schedule, to give them a call and they would be happy to reschedule for a time that was more convenient. I called. After obtaining my Social Security number, the girl on the other end of the phone said that they "really don't reschedule appointments, but Fridays are walk-in days" and I could come in then. She said that 9am would be the best time, when they first opened, because it is a "first come first served" basis. She never offered a deadline, or any other advice on the matter. (I later came to find out that the girl I spoke with was a "temp," and the actual office in downtown Waukegan only housed 2 state caseworkers for the over 33,000 child support enforcement cases in Lake County, Illinois.)
Three weeks later I received a letter from the agency stating that if I didn't show up in 30 days they were going to "close my case" (which I wasn't aware had even been opened yet). So, I sat my new boss down in a private conference room and forced out the sad story that is the father of my children. She was very supportive, even suggesting if there was a way I could go that very minute. I told her that I needed to attend their "walk-in" day on Friday and she agreed without hesitation.
So Friday came and I was prepared. Social Security number in hand, I had been to the county courthouse weeks before and obtained all the copies of the child support orders, orders of withholding that were sent in vain to my ex's various employers and a copy of the actual judgment, my divorce decree. I filled up the car with gas (this day coincided with my payday which helped because Waukegan is about 45 minutes across the county) and bought an iced tea for the trip. I was very surprised when I arrived to see an unsecured little storefront with large letters that announced "Child Support Enforcement". On so many levels this alarmed me greatly. So many disgruntled noncustodial parents out there and nothing was protecting the people inside this State Agency? I signed in at the Dept. of Child Support Enforcement at 9:25am, gave the girl my Social Security number and settled down with a book I brought anticipating a wait. 10 minutes after I sat down, the young lady behind the counter (the "temp") announced to me and everyone else in the waiting area that I had not paid the required $25 fee. I told her I had, and being a very prepared person produced the copy I made of the cashier's check. She said, "oh, ok." and that was it. I never did find out what that was all about. Someone later did mention that the fee was never posted in the computer, which I sent on November 22, 2002, three months earlier. I settled in a chair surrounded by 5 other women, some of them with their children in tow. I thanked God mine were safe at school, away from any possibility of being subjected to this disheveled environment. Based on this office, it's no wonder I was brought up to believe that the Illinois Department of Public Aid was a State Agency that is perceived as for "losers" or "trashy people", not for when "bad things happen to good people". I quickly buried my nose into my book. 25 minutes into my book, the iced tea kicked in. I got up and asked the young lady if I could use the restroom. I noticed the signs on the walls clearly stating that they did not have a public restroom. What I failed to realize was that even if your name was on the list and you were actually there to see someone, you still could not use their restroom. The young lady directed me 3 doors down to the Ace Hardware store to use their facilities. Jaw firmly dropped, I trotted down the street to Ace Hardware. When I told the nice lady (who thankfully did not ask me for my Social Security number) at Ace my dilemma, she dropped her jaw as well and directed me past a restricted area, up some stairs and past a few offices, to the employee lounge. As I left repeatedly thanking her and apologizing, she requested that I pass along to the Child Support people that they did not have a public restroom either. I felt so horrible I bought a hammer for $12.50 that I didn't need.
Back in the waiting area, about a half hour later, a lovely black woman came out and asked me why I was still waiting. I told her the story of the attempt to reschedule my appointment which brought me there on "walk-in day". Dismayed, she responded by telling me that I was given incorrect information, that the girl I spoke with should have taken a message and that she would have called me back herself to reschedule. Seeing the look of confusion on my face, the lovely lady said that she would get the supervisor to come out and talk to me. 25 minutes later (it's 10:55 by this time) the supervisor comes out holding the sticky-note with my social security number on it. She said that she was sorry I was misinformed, and that if I'd like, she could reschedule my appointment for me and I could come back. Unsuccessfully holding back tears and swear words, I told the woman I had taken the day off today for this, and "what the hell is wrong with you people", and "I've been sitting here for an hour and a half and you come out to reschedule", and "I had to walk three doors down to take a piss" and "I wasn't leaving till I spoke with someone." Saving yelling for crying instead, it was obvious to this woman that I was getting extremely angry. 15 minutes after this I was in a caseworker's office.
After an hour in one of the only two caseworkers' offices, I had calculated that I had probably given my Social Security number out at least 5 times to various people that day. My caseworker was absolutely wonderful, but her hands were obviously tied. The woman explained to me that there was 5 caseworkers in their satellite office, but 3 retired and now there was just 2, handling over 16,000 cases each. She apologized for the miscommunications saying that they were grateful enough to have a temp to answer the phones and did not have the time to properly train them. She indicated that things were much much worse than she was letting on, but if they were to say something, the State would perceive that she was a disgruntled employee. I was once again astonished, for if anyone could assist the State in fixing this catastrophe, it should be the people who work so painstakingly hard on the front lines of the Department of Public Aid. I finally set up my case. My caseworker's contact in the Disbursement Unit faxed her over a list of all the payments my ex-husband has made to this date. Two weeks' worth in the last 4 months. But she said that the judge will not accept this fax. She directed me to the courthouse a block away, to the basement where the records were kept. I had to go to the "Child Support" window and request a ledger. She set expectations that my ex-husband will be served for a court date in about two months ("by then", my mind raced, "my kids will have new shoe-sizes and I'll be pressured to buy spring clothes and new bathing suits for them, not to mention two months of rent, utility bills, gas in the car, oil prices are going up, I'd better make sure the kids turn off all the lights when they leave a room, I hope the school doesn't start asking me for the other half of this year's tuition...") This is, apparently, "really much quicker than most states". Once he is served, I get a "short and sweet" conversation with the State's Attorney about one or two days prior to the appearance and then the judge will "reset the rearages". Nowhere in this explanation did she mention when I'd be able to go out and buy my son a new backpack, which he desperately needs and his school is pressuring me to purchase...
Please take the time to read this e-mail over and over. Eventually you will come to recognize it because it is going to every branch of every public servant I can get addresses for. You may even come to know my name. I am going to make sure that the whole world knows what's wrong with the State of Illinois, and what we taxpayers expect everyone to do about it. Please don't take this lightly. Something needs to be done and the appropriate people in public office need to know that the Child Support System in the State of Illinois needs to be fixed. It's been suffering way too long. If you have any offerings of contacts for me to assist in getting this problem fixed, please please please pass them along to me. I want to help in any way I possibly can.
This is what you'd call a bad day, I think. And this is just the appointment she had to make an appointment.
While beauracracy is a fact of life when it comes to government offices, it's not often that you really get an inside look at the disorganization, the understaffing and the inconsistencies that people have to deal with.
There is a staggering difference between our sound-bites and our reality.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
2.3.03 @ 6:34p
I would dare to guess that the state of Illinois is not alone in their plight.
From my own experience 8 and a half years ago when my daughters' father walked out (he's also a resident of Illinois with a standing order for child support that's never been paid), the state of New York is in the same boat. Too many children and not enough people to track it all down and sort it all out.
My heart and prayers go to your sister and by all means if there is anything that can be done to help, all you've got to do is say the word.
2.3.03 @ 7:05p
I should have mentioned, in case anyone is so inclined: if anyone does have any helpful ideas, you may contact Linda through me.
2.3.03 @ 7:54p
Get a bounty hunter to break his kneecaps?
2.3.03 @ 8:03p
I thought I'd be at least minimally civil about the sleazy, good-for-nothing, drunken, abusive, useless waste of molecules that is my ex-brother-in-law.
(But yeah, Matt - the thought crossed my mind.)
2.3.03 @ 8:40p
We don't have things much better here in Tennessee, if our DCS is any indication.
The state has required caseworkers to visit every single foster child by Feb. 11. It seems court workers who volunteered to distribute Christmas presents to foster kids very often found that the kids on their state-provided lists were not in the care of the foster parents on the list. Either they never had been, or had been moved out months ago.
Nashville Metro courts have so little faith in the state's ability to keep track of their charges, that they are now requiring that foster kids be physically present in the courtroom for any proceedings related to them.
Anyone who has ever feared that Big Brother is watching can now relax. They can barely keep track of the people they're supposed to be watching now.
2.3.03 @ 10:04p
Common party line from (Fill In The Blank political party) "Government will solve all your problems". Yeah right.
The best advice I can think of at this moment is this: Get the word about this out into the mainstream media. Send copies to the local newspapers (especially The Sun Times and The Tribune). The best way to force bureaucrats to back down is with shame and ridicule and the Illinois DCS is definitely deserving of that now.
2.3.03 @ 10:34p
Why'd she ever marry this guy in the first place? He sounds like a f$#&*@!ing piece of work.
2.3.03 @ 10:56p
People change. He seemed like a decent guy, lo, those many years ago. A little rough around the edges, but certainly not someone you'd deny knowing in public. The marriage didn't work out. Now my sister has to raise two children on her own. He got out of a bad marriage and just walked away.
He's like a million other people - 33,000 of them in Lake County, Illinois alone. He financially abandoned his kids. Why? Because he CAN. If judges weren't insisting that it is possible to raise two children on $700 a month, if someone were enforcing child support orders so single parents could AT LEAST get that for their kids, if someone cared enough not to hire someone under the table for the purpose of avoiding responsibility, if penalties for this sort of thing were stiff and unavoidable, it would happen less.
2.3.03 @ 11:59p
From my sister: "Tell Matt I keep asking myself the same question (answer is: teach your children that they should not marry people at age 22) but I wouldn't trade the two beautiful children I got out of the marriage for anything. They are my life, heart and soul.
Oh, and broken kneecaps would be the excuse my ex has been looking for two years running to not go out and get a real job. Although the minute he thinks I'm not capable of it I'm definitely up for proving him wrong myself!"
2.4.03 @ 12:07a
I obviously don't have kids, but several years ago a friend of mine divorced her husband in Texas, after he left her and their two kids for a woman who eventually divorced him taking everything he had. Anyway, my friend returned her home to her parents in NJ, because she would have help from them. Her ex made one child support payment and then moved himself. She inquired as to how to go after her ex for back support, as the months passed without a check, and was told by Tx. state officials, she would have to move back to Tx. and re-establish a resident for 6 months before they could being the process of going after him, and it would only work if he were still living in Tx. Your sister's plight doesn't surprise me. Our government needs a complete overhaul across the boards. Has your sister tried sending this to local and state news papers, or television news organizations? I know it would make it really public, but maybe publicity is what this really needs. A lot of me don't like to be shown up as deadbeat dads, and I'm sure her ex wouldn't like his co-workers to know how he's essentially abandoning his kids. It's a long shot, but public humiliation works on some people. Also, are there any legal avenues she hasn't yet explored? Attorney's who will work for free? (It does happen occasionally.) Good luck to your sister.
2.4.03 @ 9:03a
Why'd she ever marry this guy in the first place? He sounds like a f$#&*@!ing piece of work.
This is a question every person in this type of situation ends up asking themselves repeatedly. I'd say most would answer that when they married him/her, they didn't show any signs of being a jerk.
2.4.03 @ 3:28p
I'd definitely try to get a bleeding heart columnist in Illinois on the case, as well as the head of DHS, and some low-on-the-totem state senator looking to make a name for themselves.
I'd also turn the employer into the IRS = surely, paying in cash makes it difficult to accurately report wages to the IRS. Granted, that will absolutely lessen the chances that your sister will get her money, but she'll at least get dickwad where it hurts.
I also think she should form some type of collective with other single parents facing this situation - one of the primary reasons they get lost in the shuffle is that they are just one case of thousands.
But if the thousands turn up on the State Capitol steps....
2.11.03 @ 2:23p
UPDATE: My sister sent a copy of her letter to the State's Attorney's office and got a personal reply. (Reply edited for space.): "Dear Linda, I couldn't agree with you more.I have spent 18 years here trying to make a system work that no one cares about except the women and children who are directly affected...my office is here and will keep working once they get your case but please understand there is nothing fast about it. Once we have your case we will keep on it but we are allowed only one court day per week to service the thousands of cases out there and the State is constantly cutting our budget...If they could only see that getting the support to the right people would cut down on the services people need from the state in terms of aid....I forwarded your email to my boss Mike Waller and we spoke about our office taking over the responsibility of interviewing people who have cases. There is a bill pending for the State's Attorney's office taking that responsibility over from public aid.I think it would be a good idea for you
to mention that idea to any legislators you speak to."
(continued in next post)
2.11.03 @ 2:25p
Linda says: "That was Friday morning. On Friday afternoon I received a call from my caseworker at the Child Support Enforcement Division. Her message simply stated that my case has been turned over to the State's Attorney's office. Amazing, since I was told the process could take up to two months. My goal was not to get preferential treatment, but to fix the system overall. Now I have a guilt complex because there are so many custodial parents out there who didn't get pushed ahead. I want to find out more about this bill that is mentioned above and plug it like crazy on Saturday. (Linda is attending a Republican Club dinner that night.)
Turns out that the criminal system may beat the civil system anyway. The ex is up for sentencing for his DUI from last year on the 21st."
michelle von euw
2.11.03 @ 2:54p
Thanks for the update, Juli. I'm glad to hear your sister is getting some results. This one part of the letter really stood out for me:
"If they could only see that getting the support to the right people would cut down on the services people need from the state in terms of aid..."
EXACTLY! This is such a simple point, but one that our politicians have a really tough time understanding.
2.11.03 @ 3:18p
Wait...she's a Republican? (Or is she just attending the dinner?)
If so, maybe she'll rethink her political views now that she's seen first hand what budget cuts to social programs do.
Tell her not to feel guilty though. Good for her she stood up and got the help she needed. If more people did that, then there'd be serious reform.
2.11.03 @ 4:44p
I don't know if she's a Republican, Matt. My mother's significant other, however, is in charge of the aformentioned dinner. I suspect that, like me, my sister is a raging, knee-jerk moderate with no party affiliation.