Durham DSS to offer reprieve for parents who owe child support

Dec. 01, 2013 @ 04:33 PM

This will be the second year in a row that 27-year-old Jeff Elliott, a father of three, will spend the holidays in jail.

Last year, he was at the Durham County Detention Facility for a probation violation. During those seven months, he said, his child support payments continued to rack up.

He said he could catch up on what he owed by several months’ worth of payments after he was released, he said, but couldn’t pay the total. He’s now in jail for failure to pay child support.

When he gets out in February, Elliott expects it will be hard to find a job. His record includes probation for misdemeanor breaking and entering, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana and possession with the intent to sell cocaine.

 “It’s hard to get a job, especially when you get out and you got child support on your back,” he said. Selling drugs, you go to jail, you don’t pay child support, you go to jail.”

To keep people like Elliott out of jail for not paying child support and to collect some money for families before the holidays, the Durham County Department of Social Services is holding “Amnesty Day” Wednesday at Durham County Justice Center.

On that day in courtroom 5D, the department will recall warrants issued for the arrest of parents behind in their child support payments in exchange for a payment of $350, no matter how much the parent actually owes.

The reprieve is only for parents who have a warrant issued for their arrest, said Mary Flounoy, child support program manager for the Durham County Department of Social Services.

As of Tuesday, more than 400 warrants had been issued, Flounoy said. There’s one parent in that total who owed more than $86,000 in one case and $33,000 in another, she said, for a total of $119,000.

Some parents don’t pay because they’re unemployed, Flounoy said, and sometimes they’re unemployed because they are under-educated. Others aren’t motivated. And others had no guidance on the responsibility of having a child.

“I think the bulk of it is because people aren’t employed, and they can’t find employment,” she said.

This will be the second Amnesty Day the county department has held this year, Flounoy said. In May, the county collected money from about 20 people. Officials had hoped for more, Flounoy said, but she said some people do not trust child support agencies.

“We wanted people to know that we are not playing a game, we’re not planning a sting, at the courthouse we’re being open and honest,” she said. “My premise is, I want folks to be employed, I want them to pay the child support that they have the ability to pay, and we’re going to work toward that.”

Not everyone is going to be happy about Amnesty Day, she said, but the department wants families to get some of the money they are owed.
“They want folks in jail, and they don’t care if they’re getting any money because they’re angry or whatever,” she said. “But being unhappy about it and you’re not getting any money is sometimes punitive.”

Irenah Jenkins is one person who doesn’t agree with greater lenience for parents who owe child support. A single mom, Jenkins is working to launch a nonprofit that would help mothers pursue their educational goals and aid in their personal and professional development.

Amnesty Day will be frustrating to single parents already doing everything they can to raise their children, Jenkins said – feeding them, caring for them when they’re sick, attending recitals and football games and working to provide for them financially.

While she said she’s not advocating for delinquent parents to go to jail, she said at some point, they need to be held responsible or “else we’ll continue to get the same results.”

 “So much slack is given to the other parent, but plenty of single mothers and fathers make a way every day for their children with little to no hope,” she said.

Elliott said he has a good relationship with his children, and he’s still together with his girlfriend of 12 years. They met when they were 15 at Riverside High School, he said.

He said it’s not her fault he’s in jail.

Child support is triggered when a parent applies for Medicaid or for Work First, North Carolina’s program for helping families stay off or move off welfare into jobs under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families initiative.

He said he believes Amnesty Day sounds like a good program.

“If they gave me time to pay them,” he said, “I’d do a program like that.”