Deadbeat Parents

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It's estimated that hundreds of parents in the stateline are not getting the child support payments they're owed. In some cases, moms and dads are nearly $100,000 behind, but can the system do more to turn this problem around?

Angela Wigtion's been playing the child support game since 1991; so far she's losing.

Wigtion's ex-husband is more than $30,000 behind in payments for their girls. She goes to court about six times a year hoping to catch a break.

“I’ll pay for two months and then he’ll quit his job and then we have to find out where he's working again, get another order for them to garnish his wages and then the process will start all over again,” says Wigtion.

By law, moms and dads this far behind in payments can get their driver’s licenses suspended, get their professional licenses taken away, even serve jail time, but, "In our county, it just doesn't happen here," says attorney Donald Ray.

In seven years, from July of 1996 to December of 2003, 25 driver's licenses have been suspended in Winnebago County for child support issues. Some deadbeats have gone to jail, but mainly for failing to appear in court.

"The mechanisms to put the squeeze on these people aren't enforced, so the problem builds, it doesn't get better," says Ray.

Angela Toepfer says her ex has mastered the system. He owes more than $20,000 in back payments. Her and her attorney have been in and out of court once a month for the past year.

"He knows how to get away with it. He hasn't done jail time or lost his license. Why should he pay?” questions Toepfer.

Ray estimates that at least 500 parents in our county are not receiving their court ordered child support payments. He has 50 open cases himself, and in one Winnebago County courtroom two days a week are devoted to these cases alone.

"It's a serious problem and really a serious problem when you get into the effects of what not paying child support is, it really puts a lot of children and women at poverty levels," says Judge Rosemary Collins.

Some judges find themselves in a tough spot. Because these are civil cases, even if they put deadbeats behind bars it's usually for days or months, and in many cases suspending a driver's license isn't an option.

"If a parent who owes child support doesn't have a driver's license, then you have to have other options available," says Collins.

In several Michigan counties, however, the attorney general's office files criminal charges against the worst offenders. Deadbeats must pay up or face years possibly behind bars. They've since collected nearly $7 million in back payments.

In Winnebago County criminal charges would have to be filed by the state's attorney's office.

Attorney Charles Prorok says it's never been done, but might be open to it if the case warranted a criminal charge.

"I know there's moms like me out there who are barely making ends meet. I'm not asking for excessive amounts, just to do their fair part,” says Toepfer.