PJ Miller’s middle-class world crumbled four years ago along with her marriage.
Suddenly, she was divorced and raising four kids with only a high school education. She looked to court-ordered child support from her ex-husband to keep her from poverty.
The checks rarely came, the 34-year-old says. When they did, the payments were a fraction of what she expected.
“I got $20 here and there,” she says. “I once got a payment of $1.”
Miller drifted into the welfare office - scared, broke and ashamed.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done - go in and apply for food stamps,” Miller says.
Although Miller has remarried, her ex-husband, a former probation officer who now lives with his parents, remains $1,445 behind in payments, according to state records.
“I can’t make enough to make the support payments and live, too,” says Ed Blanchette. “I pay what I can.”
Stories like this are common in Idaho. About 13,000 Idahoans - mostly men - are three months or $2,000 behind in child support payments. State officials say these so-called “deadbeat dads” are the top reason Idaho mothers turn to welfare.
This year lawmakers are fighting back.
Most indications are that new laws may force more deadbeat dads to pay up. But social and financial woes for custodial mothers and the state will continue.
“I know men who will find a way around anything,” says single mom Kim Adams, whose husband is a year behind in support for their two children. “I don’t know the solution. Everything I can think of they could get out of.”
Deadbeats now owe $123 million in overdue support statewide - more than $100 for every man, woman and child in the state. State Sen. Grant Ipsen, R-Boise, estimated deadbeats cost taxpayers about $24 million in welfare alone.
As part of a welfare reform package, the Idaho Senate moved last month to suspend deadbeats’ driver’s, fishing and professional licenses. Lawmakers also are considering firing public workers who don’t pay child support.
“That isn’t any good. Without a license you can’t get a job,” says Blanchette, adding that he is returning to college. “They say they want the money, but all they want to do is destroy your life.”
Idaho Health and Welfare officials like Mary Ann Saunders, who oversees welfare reform, say the proposals are often misunderstood.
“We aren’t going to just go out and take somebody’s license,” she says. The state will allow parents to come up with a payment plan first, and only take away privileges if that plan is ignored.
Her office expects new laws to help settle 240 unsolved cases over four years. In Maine, where a similar license suspension plan was adopted in 1993, the state has collected $26 million in back support while suspending fewer than 50 licenses.
Thousands of cases will remain unsolved because men have moved out-of-state or can’t be found, says Elaine Fromm, director of the Organization for Enforcement of Child Support in Finksburg, Md.
But “it’s been a boon to every state that’s used it,” she says, adding about 30 states now use such laws. “Men identify with the threat of not driving or hunting. People are coming out of the woodwork.”
The largest impact will be on self-employed men, Saunders says. Now, since there’s no proof that they’re working, they can avoid having wages garnished.
Darrell L. Adams is a self-employed construction worker and owes his ex-wife Kim Adams $6,995 in back support payments, according to court records. Adams says his wife wouldn’t get any money if his license was taken away.
“I work six, seven days a week to try to make ends meet,” the Rathdrum man says. “I don’t make as much as I used to.”
He says his wife is “very understanding” and his two kids are doing fine without his $533 a month.
“She’s got like $20,000 in the bank,” he says. “I know they’re not suffering.”
Kim Adams laughs at the notion she has money saved.
“If I had $20,000 in the bank, I certainly don’t have it now,” she says. “I’ve been patient, but I’m getting to the end of my rope. I can’t keep this up.”
Coeur d’Alene’s Janet Allen still remembers her spiral into the poorhouse after her divorce nine years ago. With four kids - one an infant - she worked as a waitress, making $600 a month.
“I panicked,” she recalls. “My parents were both dead. I got on food stamps and ate all my meals at the restaurant. My two oldest girls both worked.”
Her husband once was $8,000 behind, she says, but now is employed, and paying his debt “to avoid having his wages withheld.”
Child support records are not always accurate, however, leaving some parents uneasy.
“There’s a built-in assumption that state and county records are correct. Not true,” says Victor Smith president of Portland-based Dads Against Discrimination, which complains the child support system is biased against fathers. “I’ve seen support offices throw letters away.”
The most frequent problems come when spouses pay one another instead of through the court. It saves processing fees but leaves the court out of the loop.
“It’s natural,” Smith says. “There’s a value for children who get to see daddy open that wallet with love in his eyes; they need to see daddy’s sweaty hands and know he worked to provide for them. The government removes that.”
Marvin P. Keough, a commercial driver for the Idaho Transportation Department, says he is up-to-date on his payments - even though court records show him $4,575 behind. His wife has moved to Oregon and he says he goes through this mix-up every year.
Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
“I don’t like this one bit,” he says. “It’s kind of scary. I’d be furious if I lost my license. And I’d lose my job.”
It’s unclear how often records are inaccurate, but Saunders says it shouldn’t matter anyway.
The court will only suspend licenses at the request of a spouse who has custody. Even then, there will be opportunities for a wrongly accused person to prove he is actually paid up.
That’s why Robert C. Turnipseed and his ex-wife were surprised - but not concerned - to learn court records show him $28,500 behind on child support.
“I was completely shocked,” says his ex-wife Kathryn Knudson Turnipseed. “He has always paid me directly - and on time.”
But if the law helps force others to pay, “I’m all for it,” her ex-husband says.
For mothers like Miller, the proposed laws are long overdue.
“It takes so much to support a child,” Miller says. “I had somebody showing me a light at the end of the tunnel. Not everyone is as lucky as I was.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: North Idaho Deadbeats