March 2, 1996 in Nation/World

State Seizes Boys’ Savings For Dad’s Debts Officials Admit Error; Woman Haunted By Ex-Husband’s Liabilities

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Eleven-year-old Dustin Stefan is keeping his money in a jar so the state of Washington can’t take it again.

Earlier this year, the state seized the $45.42 Dustin put in his savings account at the Deer Park branch of Seafirst Bank.

“I just almost cried,” he said. “I’d been saving for a long time…and it’s just gone.”

The state also took the $42.12 his 8-year-old brother, Brandon, had squirrelled away in his account.

The raid on the children’s savings is part of the state Department of Employment Security’s effort to collect a $1,800 tax debt owed by the boys’ father, Phillip Stefan.

Dustin doesn’t understand the reasoning. “Why should any child have to pay for an adult’s debts?” asked the fifth-grade student.

“We didn’t know we were seizing children’s accounts,” explained Jan Sartain, the state’s tax administrator for the Spokane district. “We’re certainly not here to collect taxes from children.”

Sartain said Friday the state grabbed the $87.54 from the boys because it thought their mother was still responsible for the state debt. Her name and Social Security number were on the accounts along with the boys’ names.

Dustin and Brandon live with their mother, Traci Clark, who runs a small manicure business from her Deer Park trailer. She has tried for five years to convince the state and other creditors she is not responsible for her ex-husband’s debts.

The 1991 divorce decree states all debts stemming from the couple’s former Spokane car wash, TLC Handwashing, are Phillip Stefan’s to pay. But the state continued to hold her accountable for taxes the company didn’t contribute to the state unemployment trust fund.

In late January, she was notified her boys’ savings were seized.

“There was no communication. No letter. No nothing. They just took the money,” Clark said.”I think it was harder on me than it was (my boys). I had to sit down and explain it to them in a way that didn’t bad-mouth their father.”

Clark gets some public assistance to help supplement her income. She receives no child support from her ex-husband, whom she describes as a Cadillac-driving mechanic. “He’s great with the kids, but his priorities and responsibilities are all wrong.”

Stefan told Clark he’d reimburse the kids, but he never did. He recently moved to California. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Dustin and Brandon are trying to save money again. Their mother gives them each $3 a week. If they recite a new Bible verse from memory they get a 25-cent bonus. If they roughhouse, they’re out a quarter.

“Me and my brother used our allowance, birthday money, sellings and hard work to put money in the bank,” Dustin wrote in a letter his mother is sending politicians about her ongoing problems with her exhusband’s debts.

“I don’t think this is fair,” he wrote. “We earned the money! Why should my brother, me, and my mom have to pay for my dad’s debts? There is no way for us to run away from it. If this is a law, then the law is wrong.”

Sartain, of the state employment office, said her agency didn’t know there had been a divorce. After Clark recently passed along a copy of the divorce decree, she said the state has tried to correct its mistake.

Sartain said the money will be returned to the boys as soon as possible. She said she contacted the agency’s Olympia headquarters Friday to stress the refund should be done quickly.

“We certainly have more pressing matters than taking money out of children’s bank accounts,” Sartain said. “We like to use common sense.”

Records indicate credit agencies still think Clark is jointly responsible for $8,000 worth of debts a judge ruled were Stefan’s responsibility.

In her letter to lawmakers, Clark said, “I am fed up. It is unfair when my personal money is taken to pay his debts, and I feel that it is a crime when my innocent children have to pay.”

Clark has removed what little cash she had in a savings account.

Dustin said he doesn’t want to risk leaving his money in a savings account. “I’m keeping it in a jar in my bedroom.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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