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updated: 11/28/2011 2:58 PM

Delinquent child-support cases grow in suburbs

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  • In the three years from 2008 to 2010, the number of delinquent child-support cases tracked by the state has risen sharply in the suburbs.

    In the three years from 2008 to 2010, the number of delinquent child-support cases tracked by the state has risen sharply in the suburbs.

 
 

Late child-support payments can wreak havoc on a family. Yet, as people struggle to pay their bills and keep their jobs or find new ones, more suburban parents are having trouble meeting their obligations to their children.

From 2008 to 2010, the number of delinquent child-support cases tracked by the state has risen sharply in the suburbs -- faster than it has throughout the remainder of Illinois.

In DuPage County, 9,000 cases are in arrears, a 48 percent climb. The increase is 66 percent in McHenry County, 43 percent in Lake County and 24 percent in Kane County. Cook County saw an 8 percent increase in cases between 2008 and 2009, but then numbers came back down for 2010.

At the same time, the total number of delinquent child-support payments officials track statewide dropped by about 14,000 cases to about 340,000.

It's a problem that hurts both the parent who owes the money and parents with custody of children, attorneys and observers say.

The parents who owe, often jobless, fall further behind on the payments. And the parents with custody of children often must struggle even harder to pay for their kids' basic needs.

"Child support doesn't just pay for clothing and extracurriculars and things for the kids," said Batavia attorney Carolyn Jansons, who specializes in family law. The support is important, she says, "in order to be able to keep roofs over the kids' heads."

It stands to reason that a downturn in the economy leads to trouble with child-support collection.

Pamela Lowry, director of the state's Division of Child Support Services, says when unemployment is up, people can't make their court-mandated payments.

Yet the situation is a little more complex.

One reason the state is tracking more cases in the suburbs is because fewer people can afford private attorneys who often handle the enforcement of child-support cases.

The state enforces about 65 percent of all cases, Lowry says. The rest are handled by private attorneys the parents hire, often during a divorce.

But when unemployment hits, parents no longer can afford to pay the attorney. So they turn to the state.

"Now, they're coming in and applying," Lowry said.

"What I hope will happen is families in the suburbs will sign up earlier," she said.

Illinois' Child Support Services provides free help locating a nonpaying parent, getting a child-support order and securing payments. Officials emphasize that an Illinoisan doesn't need to be on public aid to get child-support enforcement help. More information, as well as a form to apply for services, is at www.childsupportillinois.com.

State officials have a multitude of enforcement tools at their disposal, from tracking when someone gets a new job and can start paying again to stopping deadbeats from renewing their driver's licenses.

Still, none of that helps if the parent who owes child support can't find a job and, therefore, doesn't have the money to pay.

"What can you do?" said Lawrence Schlam, a professor at the Northern Illinois University College of Law. "They either have it or they don't."

Parents who become unemployed -- or get lower-paying jobs that don't allow them to feasibly make their payments -- can ask a judge to have those payments lowered.

But, Schlam says, lower payments don't do any good for the parent who's depending on that money to pay bills.

"It's just a question of who's got money and who doesn't," Schlam said. "And you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip."

While the number of delinquent cases in the suburbs has risen over the past few years, so has the total amount of child support overdue.

From 2008 to 2010, the total amount owed that the state tracks in DuPage County rose 36 percent to more than $110 million.

In Kane County, it rose 14 percent to more than $102 million. It's up 36 percent in Lake County to more than $88 million and up 74 percent in McHenry County to nearly $30 million.

In Cook County, including Chicago, the numbers held steady at about $1.5 billion for 2010.

The issue of child support has been in the spotlight recently because of a lawsuit facing 8th District U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, whose ex-wife, Laura, claims he owes her $117,437 in late child support payments and interest accrued over five years.

Walsh says allegations of missed payments from November 2005 to June 2007 are false; he recently filed in court copies of checks he says went to Laura Walsh and to his children's schools and sports teams.

The McHenry Tea Partyer admits he did not pay child support from March 2008 to December 2010 but says he and his former wife had agreed that neither would pay the other child support. The couple's children are 24, 20, and 16.

Jeanne Marie Dauray led a Catholics United group protest outside of Walsh's office earlier this year, along with several single mothers who have struggled with late child-support payments from their former spouses.

Dauray, of Round Lake, said after her parents' divorce, her father remarried and his child-support payments began to fall by the wayside.

Both of her parents were college-educated, Dauray said, but "when it came time for me and my sisters to go to school, those opportunities were not there."

Yet, as unemployment remains high, more suburban residents might find themselves in the same situation Dauray was in during her childhood in the northern suburbs in the late 1980s and early '90s.

"The fact of the matter is, there's no work," Schlam said.

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