El Dorado County Program is Giving Child Support Collection a Big Boost By Cathy Locke - Bee Staff Writer, Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, January 9, 2005
<<return to Media Index In the crowded central corridor of Placerville's historic courthouse, Child Support Services staff members Patty Mirsky and Elaine Somogyi flanked the stairway, using the railings as makeshift counters. From their temporary workstations, Mirsky, a child support specialist, and Somogyi, an attorney, conferred with clients in El Dorado County's Job Court program, explaining what to expect when the courtroom doors opened. The scene is repeated four times each Monday. Through a kind of "tough love" program combining strict enforcement with job counseling, county officials say they have boosted child support collections and helped parents land jobs. "Seek work" orders are part of child support service programs statewide, but each county handles the process differently, said Laura Roth, director of El Dorado County's Department of Child Support Services. "We decided to make it a focus because it was effective in our collections," she said. Of the department's approximately 8,300 cases involving absent parents, 461 are in the Job Court program, initiated two years ago, Roth said. Participants are noncustodial parents who owe child support but have not made payments for a year or more. Job Court collections in September, she said, totaled $88,899 - $24,419 in current support and $64,479 in arrears payments. In November, the department announced that with nearly $14.7 million in collections for fiscal year 2003-04 it ranked No. 4 in California for achieving goals set by the state. It was the third year the county had placed among the top 10 statewide for performance in areas including collections, paternities established and court orders obtained. Carrie Ehlers, a former process server and now an attorney with Child Support Services, was part of the team that established Job Court. The program, she said, was born of frustration with parents who used lack of employment as an excuse for failing to take financial responsibility for their children. "They all seem not to have work, but they're being supported by someone," she said of the absentee parents. Looking for stronger enforcement methods, Ehlers said, staff members hit upon the idea of a Job Court modeled after the Drug Court program, which requires people to report every two weeks for drug testing. Under the Job Court program, parents who are in arrears on child support payments are personally served with a notice to seek work and are assigned a court date. Ehlers said 15 to 50 such cases may be heard on any given Monday. "Thirty-five percent to 50 percent come up with a job by their first court appearance," Roth said. "We realize people are working under the table, and they will usually come clean." Those who do not have jobs are required to seek work and to report regularly on their progress. Mirsky is the case worker who keeps tabs on participants, who must contact at least five potential employers during each two-week period. They must document their search activities on a job log and sign it under penalty of perjury.
Job Court participants also must appear in court, some as often as every two weeks, until they find employment. Many come into the program "resentful and full of spite," Mirsky said. "This is no Disneyland, believe me." But, she added, "when you're under the gun to do five job searches every two weeks from the judge and an attorney, a lot go out and get jobs, and in doing so, they find it actually feels good to work." Those who fail to appear or to make a good-faith effort to find employment can be sentenced to jail time. "We only prosecute those that literally thumb their nose at the process," Roth said. Family Law Commissioner Gregory Dwyer hears the cases. He described the Job Court program as a success and credited the efforts of the Department of Child Support Services. "A lot of people want to work, but they're not good at job hunting," he said. Dwyer said Mirsky's knowledge of local and regional job markets and her counseling skills are key to the program's success. If a client says no jobs are available, she often can cite a dozen openings in retail sales or construction. Although people may enter the program reluctantly, Mirsky and Ehlers said many eventually thank them for their help. Jessica Runningbear, 19, spent five months in the program and described it as "awesome." The mother of a 3-year-old son, she said, "It made me realize I could be more than I thought I could be. I didn't think I was capable of getting a job." Runningbear lives in Hayward and doesn't have a car, but she took Amtrak to Sacramento, then a bus to Placerville for her court appearances. With Mirsky's encouragement, she enrolled in an Employment Development Department program in the Bay Area and landed a job in three months. Runningbear said she is working in a theater box office and contributing regularly to the support of her son, who is living with his father in El Dorado County. Job Court staff members were supportive and understanding, she said. "If you work with them," Runningbear said, "they'll work with you." Mirsky said program participants range from those with no job skills to people with backgrounds in high-tech fields. One woman who appeared during a recent court session had gotten a job at a 99 Cent Store and was ordered to pay $25 a month in child support. "We have to come up with an order that works," Dwyer said, explaining that he and staff members are sensitive to clients' ability to pay. Joshua Scott, a Pleasant Valley resident and father of two children, is a newcomer to the program and is looking for work. He said he previously was employed in construction and underground utility installation. After serving jail time for an undisclosed offense, Scott, 29, said he is trying to get his life in order and that Job Court gave him a needed push. "I knew that I had things to take care of with my kids," he said. Through the program, Scott said, he has received advice on preparing a résumé and how to look for a job. For some people, Mirsky said, the key to getting a job may be as simple as knowing how to dress for an interview. She calls businesses to verify clients' job search logs. When she inquired about one young man, Mirsky said the business owner told her he wouldn't hire the man because he showed up in a T-shirt with a skull and crossbones and a profanity printed on the front. After receiving advice on appropriate attire, the young man got a job and has been making regular support payments for more than year, Mirsky said. Such achievements, she said, are her reward. "There's nothing better," Mirsky said, "than talking to someone who got a job from their own effort." About the writer: The Bee's Cathy Locke can be reached at (916) 608-7451 or firstname.lastname@example.org