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Child support collection grows: Tough tools bring in big bucks in North Dakota

BISMARCK -- North Dakota is just starting to see results from a new tool designed to jar loose tardy child support payments. It involves suspending the hunting licenses of those who have not paid support owed to their children. But it's far from ...

BISMARCK -- North Dakota is just starting to see results from a new tool designed to jar loose tardy child support payments.

It involves suspending the hunting licenses of those who have not paid support owed to their children.

But it's far from being the first aggressive enforcement tool available to state and regional officials for collecting child support.

Non-custodial parents who fall behind on payments and refuse to catch up have found they can't get a passport.

They may see their credit reports ruined, their salary bonuses taken away or their tax refunds seized. They could face jail time. Or their debt may follow them to the grave and their estate hit up to recapture unpaid child support.


They are tools that sometimes result in huge one-time collections, like the $15,000 a parent paid in past due child support earlier this year in order to get a passport.

Another parent paid $27,495 in support when faced with serving jail time.

Mike Schwindt, director of the state Child Support Enforcement Division, keeps tabs on the biggies -- child support arrearages totaling $10,000 or more.

He sends to staff statewide, e-mail kudos called "big bucks updates." Through mid-October, this year's "big bucks" collections totaled nearly $400,000.

"There for awhile, we were averaging one a week," Schwindt said. "Recently, we hit what I call the daily double, two in one day. Three times since July we've had daily doubles."

Child support officials also get help from court judges.

"Recently, we had two cases where guys paid over $20,000 each because they were put in jail as part of the (court) order to show cause. That was the judge's discretion," Schwindt said.

Earlier this year, enforcement workers in Dickinson and Jamestown intercepted $10,000 in insurance settlements and applied them to unpaid child support bills.


At the Bismarck regional office, child support workers and court clerks convinced a man that he was headed to jail. He paid off his account balance in full - more than $30,000.

In September, Schwindt recognized child support workers in Minot for recognizing that a person with large child support debt also held stock options. They successfully seized $5,000 to apply to the arrearage.

Minot workers also negotiated and collected $18,000 from a man who hadn't made a child support payment since at least 1999.

Another man had to pay $17,000 before being able to refinance his house. If the Child Support Division gets a lien or judgment against a debtor's house, that person cannot refinance or sell without first paying off child support debts.

The 2003 law that allows child support officials to suspend hunting licenses without going before a judge, will also soon be used against tardy obligors' drivers licenses, professional licenses and other permits.

Kathy Ziegelman, Fargo regional child support director, said the agency chose to start withholding hunting licenses, as a pilot project, because it involves a smaller number than drivers licenses. Starting with drivers' licenses "would have been overwhelming," she said.

Despite new methods for collecting, some families who are owed money aren't always impressed.

To Carmen Karch, Richardton, N.D., the big bucks are no big deal.


Karch has been active in "ACES" -- a national Association for Children for Enforcement of Support -- for 10 years. She said a lot of improvement is still needed from child support workers and judges.

"They shouldn't be patting themselves on the back too hard, because they're leaving a lot of fish in the cove," Karch said.

"I know gals that are owed $70,000, $40,000," Karch said. Once they're in court, debtors are often allowed to leave with a promise to pay $50. The money goes to the state instead of the custodial parent, because the family is on welfare and the state must be reimbursed, Karch said.

Parents who seek help with collections sometimes find their files shelved and forgotten. They are not told of their rights to see what's in their files, and often aren't told when the non-paying parent has a court date, she said.

"You are made to feel like dirt, like you're asking for charity," she said.

Years ago, when Karch pursued her own case with the Dickinson regional office, workers told her she was "a burden on the state," Karch said. She later received an apology.

Schwindt said he does not want parents treated poorly.

"I want to know about it and I will take action. We want good customer service and we will have it," he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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