PROVIDENCE — One-by-one, day-after-day, the men sheepishly walk to the lectern in Family Court and answer questions about why they can’t possibly make their child-support payments. On a recent morning, Kervin Candelier fumbled through his pants pockets and pulled out a wrinkled receipt from Western Union that suggested he had paid $1,000 in June.
Candelier owed $6,900 in child support payments, and his former girlfriend, the mother of their two children, claimed that he only gave her $500 to pay for school clothes and supplies. He said that he’s doing his best, but he’s a barber and only makes about $230 a week.
“Every business is slow right now because of the economy,” he said.
Magistrate George N. DiMuro, acting on a recommendation from the state Office of Child Support Services, ordered the father to immediately pay a lump sum of $300 and begin paying her $70 a week through the court system. DiMuro tells him to make sure the payments are made through the court, so it’s recorded — not directly to the mother. “Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself in a world of trouble here,” DiMuro warned. There’s no better place to get an understanding of the state’s poor economy than Family Court — the place where divorce, custody, child support and other domestic crises are settled. According to the latest national economic data, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate of 13 percent is the third highest in the nation, trailing only Michigan and Nevada.
Over the course of two days, dozens of men were summoned to courtrooms on the fifth floor of the Garrahy Judicial Complex to answer questions about why they are not making their child-support payments. Many of them also were there to file “motions for relief,” in which they seek to have their payments reduced because they have joined the ranks of the jobless. Candelier stood out because he actually has a job.
DiMuro, the magistrate judge, has seen a surge in the motions for relief over the past eight months. He estimated that there has been a “30 to 40 percent” increase.
DiMuro said that he has been struck by how many of the unemployed fathers once had high-paying professional jobs. They don’t fit the stereotype of a deadbeat dad, someone always looking for ways to avoid supporting his kids.
“These are people who had real good jobs who were paying religiously and they lost their jobs,” DiMuro said. “They are almost embarrassed to be here.”
Based on what he hears and sees in Family Court, DiMuro thinks the state’s unemployment rate is closer to 20 percent.
The state expects the total in child support payments that are funneled through the court system to decline this year. In 2008, court collections totaled $84.5 million; collections through the first nine months of 2009 were at $56.3 million.
With no letup in the recession’s grip on Rhode Island’s economy, state officials do not expect a surge in payments in the final three months.
Anecdotal evidence in court supports their position. Gregory Issac, an unemployed concrete worker, was in court to answer complaints from two different women that he had failed to make child support payments. Issac told DiMuro that he had been to dozens of companies searching for work, but he has had no luck. Court records show that on Sept. 26 he made a $100 payment to the one mother who attended the hearing. .
“Are you satisfied?” DiMuro asked the mother.
“No, I’m not satisfied,” she said.
DiMuro, sensitive to Issac’s financial plight, ordered him to start paying the mother $25 a-week in child support. His case was continued to next month.
The Family Court and Office of Child Support Services try to work with the financially strapped fathers. Unless they have repeatedly refused to support their children, or attempted to conceal their assets, judges are reluctant to send fathers to the Adult Correctional Institutions.
Once jailed, a father not only loses his freedom, but he also loses the opportunity of being gainfully employed and making child support payments.
State figures show that the average child-support payment for a father on public assistance is $262 per month for each child; while the obligations for others is $362 per month.
Sharon A. Santilli, associate director of the state Office of Child Support Services, and Frank DiBiase, chief legal counsel, said that unemployed fathers have to contact the court as quickly as possible and file motions for relief. Too often, they said, the fathers wait several months, thinking that they will land another job so they can resume making payments.
Instead, the fathers fall deeper into debt and then face contempt orders for failing to make child support payments.
Santilli and DiBiase said staff tries to help them find work through the state Department of Labor & Training, and also encourages them to stay in touch with their children, even when they can’t pay. Staff can also find help with parenting skills and treatment for substance abuse.
“Fathers who are involved with their children are more likely to make child-support payments,” Santilli said. “We want to try to work with them.”