Metro-East News

Accountability Court in Madison County aims to help parents catch up on child support

Ann Callis
Ann Callis

Parents struggling to make their child support payments may have more help in Madison County, thanks to a new initiative to assist noncustodial parents who have fallen behind.

Social services, attorneys, Madison County prosecutors and others have teamed up to create an “Accountability Court,” an assistance option designed to help noncustodial parents with problems meeting child support obligations catch up and stay caught up.

“The ultimate goal is to get these people employed and get them off the docket,” said Ann Callis, former chief judge of Madison County. Callis is the chairwoman of the Accountability Court committee, and said when she was chief judge, the child support division was constantly bogged down with pending cases on unpaid child support. Some cases were parents returning over and over for court appearances on their efforts to get caught up on support.

Tyler Wilke, the attorney who leads child support enforcement for Madison County, said at the moment, there are 12,324 cases in Madison County classified as IV-D with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. That classification is actually a federal designation that just means that the state is enforcing the child support provisions of the case.

12,324 cases in Madison County in which the state is enforcing the child support provisions of the case

Of those cases, approximately 6,167 have current support payments due, and of those, only 3,563 are making any payments at all toward their support obligations. In short, at least half of noncustodial parents are delinquent in child support to some degree, and only 58 percent of parents who owe support are paying anything at all.

In cases where the custodial parent ended up on public assistance, much of the unpaid child support actually doesn’t go to the parent, but to the state, to reimburse taxpayers for that public assistance, Wilke said.

Parents often are unaware that child support can be adjusted or modified when certain conditions occur, such as unemployment or layoff, Wilke said. The child support office would rather reduce the time in court and help parents catch up with their payments than chase after them, he said.

“We can alleviate the pressure from being unable to make those payments, reduce it to a manageable level and can set it at the level that it should be,” Wilke said.

We can alleviate the pressure from being unable to make those payments, reduce it to a manageable level and can set it at the level that it should be.

Tyler Wilke, attorney who heads child-support division for Madison County state’s attorney’s office

Some things are beyond their reach: interest charged on back-due payments is established in state law, so there is nothing they can do about that, or about arrearages that already exist, he said.

And if a noncustodial parent ignores their obligations for too long, consequences can be severe. The state of Illinois will go after hunting and fishing licenses, professional licenses, tax returns and even drivers’ licenses, Wilke said.

But Wilke said the main reason parents fall behind on child support is not out of an unwillingness to pay, but due to financial stress.

“The main reason is that they have become unemployed and they don’t notify us,” Wilke said. “They don’t realize that all they have to do is file a motion and child support can be adjusted.”

That problem may become much larger in Madison County with the impending layoffs at the Granite City steel plant, Wilke said.

Illinois statute sets child support for one child at 20 percent of a parent’s income after taxes, though individual divorce decrees and child support orders may vary. Accountability Court will work with the parents to help them get child support adjusted to its proper level, Wilke said.

But the other part of Accountability Court is to put the noncustodial parent in touch with social services and educational opportunities that may help improve his or her financial situation. “It’s all about the children receiving their support,” Callis said.

Callis said they held a meeting at the courthouse last week in preparation for the Feb. 9 launch, and at least 25 agencies responded. In addition to Callis and Wilke, the committee includes representatives from Madison County Employment and Training; Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation; Lewis & Clark Community College; Southwestern Illinois College; multiple private attorneys; prosecutors from the Madison County State’s Attorney’s Office; Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla; and Robert Plummer, president of R.P. Lumber, who Callis said is one of the major employers in Madison County.

“The turnout was huge, more than 25 people from various agencies,” Callis said. “We have a good core group together… I’m very pleased with the large volunteer response. Everybody really was enthusiastic about this.”

Callis said the program is entirely volunteer and is using no grants or taxpayer money. But it could prove helpful to taxpayers, she said, as many custodial parents end up on public assistance when child support goes unpaid. It also helps lighten the burden and costs on the court system, which Callis called an “intractable issue” when she was chief judge.

“It’s alleviating the taxpayer burden by helping (parents) get employed,” Callis said.

It’s alleviating the taxpayer burden by helping (parents) get employed.

Ann Callis, chairwoman of Madison County ‘Accountability Court’ committee

The Accountability Court will launch with this month’s round of child support court hearings, and more are already being slated for March. Callis said they will be tracking how many people sign up for assistance and what short- and long-term impact it has on nonpayment of child support and on the court system.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald