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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hard times affect child-support payments

Tony Gonzalez still calls his 15-year-old daughter "daddy's little girl." They listen to heavy metal music and play cards together. He takes her to meet friends at the movies and proudly calls her an excellent swimmer.

But Gonzalez can't do some things he considers fatherly duties, like giving Sandra an allowance or taking her shopping. And after losing his job of 20 years in August, Gonzalez can't afford to pay Sandra's mother the $221 a month he owes in child support.

"It's heartbreaking," said Gonzalez, 42. "I don't want to be known as a deadbeat dad."

Gonzalez's story is a common one heard in Stanislaus County Superior Court's Department 16. More and more parents, most of them fathers, are crowding the Modesto courtroom to plead with a judge to reduce their child-support payments.

They talk about salary cuts and homes in foreclosure. And unemployment rates -- which spiked at 19.2% countywide in March -- make it nearly impossible for some to keep up with their payments.

Stanislaus County withheld $1.5 million in unemployment benefits to cover the child-support obligations of parents who don't have custody three years ago. Unemployment benefits now make up $4.8 million of the county's child-support take.

In years past, family law attorneys usually heard from parents who wanted more child support taken from their former partners. Now, it's the reverse.

"It's people who have longtime jobs who are losing 10 to 15% of their pay or are on unemployment right now," said E.F. Cash-Dudley, a family law specialist in Modesto. "It's having a profound effect. We see a number of families that are just barely surviving."

Tamara Thomas, assistant director of the county's child support agency, said her office has taken a more empathic approach as she sees parents with a history of consistently paying child support fall on hard times.

"It's been less of the hammer approach," Thomas said. The "hammer" can be as much as 75 days in jail for repeated failure to pay child support.

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