Friday, December 18, 2009

Economy's Impact on Child Support - Part II

Behind the Scenes of Our Marketplace Story
Close-up of Rhonda Spurlock

An intimidating pile of file folders looms high over attorney Rhonda Spurlock's desk. But that doesn't worry her too much, because she isn't often in her office. She mostly spends her days in any of ten courts in the four Tennessee counties she serves, advocating for the scores of moms and dads that imposing stack of folders represents, chipping away at her swelling case load.

Spurlock is head litigator for her district's Child Support Office, a free state service that helps parents sort out their child support agreements. Although she does handle contempt and enforcement actions, she says her agency is "non-custodial-parent friendly."

"Our goal is to collect money so these families can have income to buy food, basic necessities for their children," she says. And that goal has become far more challenging in this economic climate. 

"A lot of parents, are frustrated and stressed out. This is a trying time. And when you’re dealing with children and money and a bad economy, it evokes a lot of anger and frustration in parents. I don’t want to add to that agitation."

No one is immune to the economic downturn, says Spurlock. She has seen struggling parents along every part of the income spectrum, from laid-off factory workers in Perry Co. (with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation) to downsized Dell and former GM employees, to bankers and executives in Williamson Co. (one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S.): "People who were previously earning from $5,000 to $10,000 (or) $15,000 a month, now who are out of work," she says. "One problem is they’re in denial that the economy will or will not get better, and they are hesitant to seek jobs in lower paying positions...And that is a big problem."

"I don’t believe a lot of people have accepted that their particular industry may not get better for a long time," she adds.

Which explains all those folders on Spurlock's desk, many of them requests from parents (who have been laid off or seen a big cut in their income) to modify the amount of child support they pay or receive. "Our modification case load has almost tripled," she says.

"Where that has been essential is for people who have been laid off, and now they’re on unemployment benefits," she says. "So if they were making $5,000, now they’re making $1,191.67  from unemployment income, and they’re gonna be asking for immediate relief because their income has drastically been reduced." But even unemployed parents have to pay something, she points out. She's empowered to give relief, but not to suspend payments altogether. "Well, your child doesn’t have that choice," she says.

A few statistics tell the story: Spurlock says her counties have seen a 6.97 decrease in child support collections since last year, and Tennessee is down 8.8 percent overall. "And that is a huge reduction in collections," she says. "...Every month this year, every county’s collections have gone down."

Spend a few minutes with Spurlock in her modest office, and a picture emerges: of a modest and practical crusader who's found her life's work and whose compassion extends to custodial and non-custodial parents alike. And she hates the term "deadbeat dads." It ignores the fact that close to forty percent of these non-custodial parents are moms, for one. "(And it's) not a fair label because a lot of people are trying, and I think that unfairly categorizes them. That’s like saying all lawyers are bad. There are some good ones in the bunch," she smiles. 

"(It's) one of those jobs you either love or hate," adds Spurlock. "You have to really care about people," she says. "I don’t represent either party, so I can step back and decide what’s best for the child."

Spurlock echoes Judge Smith's advice to parents facing job losses and increasing difficulty meeting their child support obligations: "Take action immediately to ask that your court order be reviewed," she says. "DO NOT just stop paying child support altogether...Don't wait until your unemployment runs out six months later and you're in a bind."

She also suggests that parents keep a record of where they're looking for jobs -- copies of applications or internet searches -- so they can prove they are seeking work in earnest.  -KDG

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