When parents divorce, someone usually has to pay child support. No matter how agreeable the divorce is, and how much effort is put forth by the noncustodial parent to pay up, life sometimes gets in the way. Even a short period of unemployment may lead to missed payments, and once a parent is behind on child support it quickly becomes difficult to catch up.
“The thing about owing child support is that it never goes away,” said Terry Villalovoz, financial counselor with SNAP, a nonprofit community action agency that provides education and financial assistance to low-income families. “It doesn’t matter if you declare bankruptcy. Back child support will always show up on your credit report. And of course, back child support hurts the child.”
Villalovoz is a social worker and a certified financial counselor who works directly with parents who have fallen behind on child support, in SNAP’s Building Assets for Fathers and Families program.
Funded by a federal grant, the program is in its second of three years, and has room for 300 clients. So far, 110 have completed the intake process and 80 are in the program.
One client is Jamie Dorn, who’s 39 and an automotive technician. He signed up for the program in April 2010 when he was almost $5,000 behind on his child support payments.
“I’m just about caught up on mine,” said Dorn. “I go in once a month and talk to my counselor. When I went last month I was at $1,700. That feels good.”
Dorn said when he first contacted Villalovoz he didn’t have a bank account, and he was feeling completely overwhelmed.
“I didn’t have a bank account because the Division of Child Support can take money out of that,” said Dorn. “It drives you nuts. You can’t get ahead because the state takes it away from you as soon as you have some money.”
That’s a common problem for many of the Building Assets clients, said Villalovoz.
“They don’t realize that staying in touch with the Division of Child Support goes a long way, they stop calling,” she said. “Making a good-faith payment helps too, even if it’s just $20.” Many clients at first have no idea how much money they owe or to whom. Sometimes child support is owed to the state, other times it’s owed to the custodial parent.
One client owed $98,000 when he first came in. Other clients owe a lot less, but Villalovoz said it’s easy to fall behind even on a relatively small payment if your income is $160 a week on unemployment.
“Then $400 a month adds up very quickly,” Villalovoz said.
In other cases the children the money was supposed to go to are long grown.
“There is always the option of forgiveness,” said Villalovoz, even if the state is the creditor.
Villalovoz reaches out to potential clients by sending letters about the program to parents who are already in the Division of Child Support’s database.
Villalovoz said 90 percent of the clients in the program are men, but it’s open to women, too.
Dorn said he was leery about his first appointment.
“It gets your attention when they say they can help you and you can tell they mean it,” he said.
Building Assets for Fathers and Families is not about getting deadbeat parents off the hook, it’s about financial education and it’s about stabilizing the noncustodial parent’s financial situation.
“It really is about what benefits the child,” Villalovoz said. “When the noncustodial parent can make the payments, that is what helps the children and that’s why we have this program.”
Through Building Assets for Fathers and Families, clients can get into “Second Chance Banking” and open a protected checking account so they can cash their paychecks.
“BAFF helped me get set up with a debit card and a savings account that child support couldn’t touch,” Dorn said. “The nice thing about having a bank is that I avoid all the fees at the check cashing place.”
Clients must participate in a two-hour credit management class and a two-hour money managing class, and then make their monthly appointments with Villalovoz, who closely monitors their progress.
“I’m a big believer in budgeting,” said Villalovoz. “I show them how to do a budget, how to track their spending and how to save up a little bit of money.”
Dorn is taking advantage of all these options. He’s now making consistent child support payments and saving up money in an Individual Development Account (another SNAP program) because he wants to start his own automotive shop and “pay it forward” to other low-income clients.
“I would tell other people who were where I was, to take the program. Jump in and go for it,” said Dorn. “They give you the means to survive on your own again.”