RACINE — The first time Endel Williams went to prison, at age 19, his daughter was 3 months old. One month later, his second daughter was born.
Even though he was incarcerated on drug-related charges, he was still responsible for child support. It kept adding up.
“The max for me was about $50,000,” said Endel, now 38 and a City of Racine worker. “It’s overwhelming.”
In Racine County, as of Feb. 28, there were 14,552 cases where parents owed payments for overdue child support, called arrears, according to the state Department of Children and Families. The average amount owed is $13,512.50, and accrues 12 percent interest each year it goes unpaid. That amount is in addition to any current support orders a parent may have.
The governor’s proposed budget cuts that interest rate, which could help make paying child support less overwhelming and increase the likelihood people will pay, but some say the system is crying out for more change. When noncustodial parents carry heavy arrears, the debt can be an overwhelming obligation that leads them to give up, leaving the child and custodial parent with little to nothing.
“I by no means advocate being a deadbeat dad. I believe these guys need to be responsible to take care of the children they have,” said Frank James II, the coordinator for Racine Vocational Ministry’s community re-entry program, which helps offenders make the transition back to society.
However, James said, when people get out of prison, they face housing and employment barriers. Then, child support hangs over their heads while it’s hard for them to take care of themselves.
Zakee Darr, who leads a fatherhood program at the Racine YMCA, also said common problems for men he sees are unemployment and past-due child support payments that keep adding up. Those past-due payments often include payments the noncustodial parent owes for the birthing cost.
“I have dads that feel screwed from the left and the right,” Darr said. “They are in a tight spot.”
It leads them to want to go and work under the radar so they don’t get wages garnished, Darr said.
That is what happened, in part, to Williams after he got out of prison the first time. He went back to dealing drugs and paid just enough child support to avoid going to jail for not paying anything, he said. But he didn’t put a dent in the past payments. He used child support as an excuse for his behavior, he said, but he admits not having arrears wouldn’t have changed anything.
Still, with a $50,000 debt hanging over his head, he said, “You wake up every day and know ‘I can never pay this.’ ”
The governor’s 2013-15 budget proposes cutting the annual interest rate charged on arrears from 12 percent to 6 percent as part of a pilot program to attempt to get more child support paid back, according to Andy Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families.
The budget proposes cutting the interest rate from January 2014 to June 30, 2015, although the Legislature could extend it. The idea is that this will benefit families who receive child support because research shows noncustodial parents are more likely to make payments toward their child support debt when interest rates are reduced, Smith said. Receiving those payments, in turn, also helps save taxpayer money by having custodial parents rely less on government assistance, Smith said.
“This definitely helps, without a doubt,” James said of the governor’s budget proposal. But he said more should be done, such as setting more equitable child support payments for parents while they are job hunting. Sometimes payments are higher than people can afford, he said. Also, he said, parents are put in jail too often for not paying child support.
“There needs to be some accountability,” James said. “(But) no one profits when they are locked up.”
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More also needs to be done to get equal custody for parents, said Tom Pfeiffer, the executive vice president of the nonprofit Wisconsin Fathers For Children and Families. Since child support is based on the number of nights a child is with each parent, if both parents had equal custody, support payments wouldn’t need to be so high for one parent, or exist at all, Pfeiffer said.
The people who owe child support aren’t the only ones paying the price, said Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, who serves in Family Court.
“Look at it from the flip side here. Who is suffering? The child, the custodial parent ... that is not fair to the child. It’s not fair to the physical custodial parent and it’s not fair to society to bear the financial weight for someone who brought a child into this world,” he said.
Williams said that after getting out of prison a second time for drugs, he decided to fully face his responsibility to his children. He worked with Racine Vocational Ministries and ended up getting a job at the city’s Water Department.
Today, he proudly states: “I’m done.” He no longer owes arrears, he said, showing paperwork with a zero account balance highlighted.
But he knows firsthand that some people are never able to catch up, such as his 80-year-old father. His father spent about 27 years in prison for murder and attempted murder and accumulated more than $100,000 in child support arrears, Williams said.
To this day, he is still paying on it through money taken out of his Social Security, Williams said, and he and his siblings receive a small monthly check.
How child support can add up quickly
Child support back payments or arrears can reach tens of thousands of dollars in only a few years, especially for someone who goes to prison.
When someone goes to prison or loses a job, Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz said, he often sets child support payments based on the parent working 35 hours at a job that pays minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour.
Based on that wage expectation, parents with two children, if they are with the same mother, would be expected to contribute about $63 per week in support, although they could owe more if they have arrears. That adds up to about $3,300 for a year.
Gasiorkiewicz said his philosophy is that unemployed people should be able to find a minimum-wage job, but many people don’t want to work at those jobs. Some people have told him they cannot find work, he said, but then they don’t tell him what they have done to try to get that job.
As for those in prison, Gasiorkiewicz said, “there is no free lunch. You shouldn’t go to prison and then get completely exonerated from your responsibility of paying child support for your child.” During that parent’s prison time, taxpayers are paying to support that child, Gasiorkiewicz said.
While he doesn’t stop payments for people in prison or unemployed, Gasiorkiewicz said he does work with parents who have lost their job by helping to reduce the weekly amount they owe. But it is up to them to go to court and bring it to a judge’s attention, Gasiorkiewicz said.
— STEPHANIE JONES