Eight cases of child nonsupport filed recently in Scott County

Saturday, June 9, 2007

When Social Services refers someone to a prosecutor, that person is usually charged with a misdemeanor.

The Missouri Department of Social Services has referred 22,689 cases of child nonsupport to county prosecutors since Jan 1.

Eight of them were recently filed in Scott County, part of 334 that have been referred in the past six months. Cape Girardeau County has received 140 of the cases in the same time period, according to department statistics.

Ana Compain-Romero, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, said her office faces problems when attempting to end nonsupport.

"The most obvious problem is not being able to locate the suspect," she said. "Sometimes we know exactly where the suspect is, in prison, and so there's no revenue source. Other times there are simply no resources we can tap into."

However, Compain-Romero said the office does have many options when trying to produce child support. Her department can intercept tax refunds, place liens on property and bank accounts and even revoke the driver's licenses and hunting licenses of nonsupporters.

Scott County assistant prosecutor Dana Weis said up to 50 percent of a nonsupporter's gross income before taxes can be garnished to guarantee payment.

When Social Services refers a suspected nonsupporter to a prosector, he or she are usually charged with a misdemeanor, Weis said. The charge escalates to a felony if a suspect owes more than $5,000 in child support or fails to pay anything for six individual months in one calendar year.

Weis also must prove the suspect failed to pay without good cause.

"Sometimes they'll argue that they didn't know they had to pay support," Weis said. "I don't usually buy that. There is rarely an excuse if they failed to pay anything. If a suspect has money to buy cigarettes or any other non-necessary item, they have some money they could set aside for their child."

Once a suspect is in custody, Weis said, she cooperates with the defense attorney to try to get the suspect out of custody, so the suspect can continue working. The suspect is released on a personal recognizance bond, with the conditions that they begin payment and make all court dates.

If the suspect continues not to pay, Weis said, her office can prosecute on violation of the bond agreement. It's not a clear-cut case, so Weis said she prefers other measures to try to start payment.

"I'll keep these cases in the associate level of the court for some time to try to give these people a chance to start paying," Weis said.

Weis said if a suspect's arrears, the accumulated amount they failed to pay, is not too large and he or she begins paying an appropriate amount, their charge can be amended down to a misdemeanor before they plead their case.

"Most employers ask about prior felony convictions," Weis said. "It's not helping the child if the parent who has failed to pay can't get work."

But Weis said certain situations warrant the felony conviction.

"I've seen arrears of $30,000 or $40,000, and one instance where a suspect owed $74,000 in arrears," Weis said. "I really don't have a choice but to go with a felony in those cases."

Weis said she wants nonsupporters to realize they will be prosecuted if they don't attempt to resolve the situation.

"We want them to understand their obligation so it can be dealt with outside of the courts," Weis said.

Once convicted of felony nonsupport, the subject usually receives a suspended sentence and probation, according to Weis.

"Judges are reluctant to sentence the maximum four years, and I completely understand that," Weis said. "It's not a violent crime, it's not a drug-related crime, and a prison sentence isn't going to produce any payment."

Weis said overcrowded prisons lead the Department of Corrections to release nonsupporters frequently.

"It's pretty much a no-brainer for them with the other types of criminals being held," Weis said.

Despite the difficulties of obtaining payment from some parents, the Department of Social Service still delivers a large amount of support.

The Family Support Division reports total payments for 2006 of $9.8 million in Cape Girardeau County and $7 million in Scott County.

pwylie@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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