Crow Wing County ranks at or above average in most categories when compared to other Minnesota counties in collecting child support, according to a state report.
Federal guidelines go through a truckload of criteria in measuring how well counties are doing in collecting child support.
Not surprisingly the subject can be a contentious, emotional issue with parents on either side of the issue feeling they were not treated fairly by a court-ordered settlement.
"Child support really isn't about the ex-spouse getting money as it is about the kids," said Susan Beck, Crow Wing County human services director.
Dale Parks, the financial assistant supervisor for Crow Wing County, looked at one of the nearly 500 child support cases of one of his employees Thursday at the child support office in the county's community services building. Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood » Purchase reprints of this photo.
An early key is making sure paternity is established, which most counties exceed at doing. Crow Wing County along with the vast majority of the state established paternity in 90-96 percent of cases in 2006. Dale Parks, the county's financial assistant supervisor, said if there is a doubt about paternity it's in the man's best interest to get the DNA test.
One of the new trends in child support is looking beyond a strict examination of income when it comes to determining child support for non-custodial parents. In the past a non-custodial parent would have to pay 25 percent of their income for their first child. It didn't matter how much the custodial parent earned annually or how much time the child spent with the non-custodial parent. The state now looks at time in shared custody and incomes of both parents to try to determine a more equitable rate of pay.
The United States collected $23.9 billion in child support in 2006.
Minnesota collected $584.2 million in child support in the fiscal year 2006, making the state 13th highest in the nation.
Crow Wing County collected $7,398,258 in child support in fiscal year 2007, an increase of $140,000 from fiscal year 2006.
Beck said a change in philosophy is aimed at making sure the non-custodial parent can make the payments and stay current. With grandparents sometimes raising children, both moms and dads can be considered non-custodial parents. Things are changing in family dynamics, but moms still tend to be the parent a child lives with for a majority of the time.
The county had 3,431 open child support cases for the state fiscal year 2007. The average worker handles 220 cases. Crow Wing County saw a 2 percent increase in the number of cases between 2006 and 2007.
Minnesota (which ranks third in the nation) is listed in the top five performing states for collections per open case with $2,337. The federal government reimburses two-thirds of child support costs and offers other incentives for states and counties that meet goals in terms of establishing paternity or medical support.
Beck said the county is involved in a push to make sure parents who have medical insurance coverage through their work are in fact using it to cover their children. If parents have private insurance they should pay, Beck said, adding that option is often more cost-effective.
If parents do not cover child support, the county has options for sanctions, such as taking away a driver's license, hunting license or passport or handing out jail time. Garnishing wages also is used to gain child support payments. However, taking away an ability to drive to work can be a catch-22 in terms of making sure the parent has the ability to earn an income and thus make support payments.
While the state handles processing of all payments, the county case worker is typically the first contact when custodial parents are not getting money they are depending upon to cover child-rearing costs. Beck said in some cases that can be the difference between a child getting a needed winter coat or boots.
Parks is looking into the option of starting a fathers' support group and finding volunteers who may be willing to serve as mentors or advocates for the men. Parks said they often hear there is a need to get dads more involved in their child's life. The support group could cover areas such as how to better relate to children and what their rights and responsibilities are.
Crow Wing County's budget to operate the child support program was $1,493,621 in calendar year 2006. However with reimbursement and incentives, the county taxpayer share was $280,484.
Crow Wing County was short of the county average in terms of cost-effectiveness, which measures how much is spent for every dollar collected. The cost-effectiveness as a county average in Minnesota was $5.36. In Crow Wing County every $1 spent gained $4.93.
Beck said part of the measurement is related to how much money the individuals involved earn in a year's time, which varies widely between counties.
Beck said the county's numbers could be stronger in measurement categories but that likely would take more staff on the job. And in the current economic climate adding to staff is not an option.
"I think we are doing OK," Beck said. "In any program you can do a little bit more but given the resources we have I think we are doing a good job."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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