Child support issues plague Tenn. - WKRN News 2

Child support issues plague Tenn.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -

In 1975 Congress passed a law ensuring all children have a legal right to be supported by both parents.

Thousands of Tennessee children live in homes with only one biological parent, relying on the state child support system to give them financial help.

It's a vast and complicated system that often leaves the children and their families without payment, struggling to make ends meet.

The confusion, frustration and in many cases, anger plays out every single day in courtrooms across the state.

Scott Rosenberg is a magistrate for Davidson County juvenile court and presides over such courtrooms.

Almost every day, cases involving children born out of wedlock in Davidson County come through his court.

Questions like, "How long have you been paying child support?" are the kind of questions Rosenberg has been asking parents for over 12 years from behind the bench.

As part of his duties, Rosenberg deals with paternity, custody arrangements and sets child support payments.

He's heard every story in the book and every reason why someone cannot pay their child support.

When it comes to kids, Rosenberg doesn't believe in excuses.

"Do you what you need to do within bounds of the law to make sure you get the money," Rosenberg told one parent, "because this money goes directly to feeding your child. I won't suspend your child's food until you get a job anymore than I would suspend your food."

With the recent economic downturn, Rosenberg said more parents are saying they can't pay child support.

"Every day you wake up you've got to find $6.40 to feed your child," he said to another mother, "It's not set too high."

Even if a parent can prove they are under employment or unemployed, child support payments cannot stop.

Rosenberg told the court, "Being unemployed doesn't mean you don't eat, it means you might eat differently or less."

When parents can't pay or refuse to pay, the kids suffer.

In fact, in just one year, Tennessee kids were cheated out of more than $100 million.

"I know I can't fix where the problem exists, because it happens outside this courtroom," Rosenberg said.  "I look at myself as I have to manage these people's lives and their relationships and how these two people get along with each other. I try not to look at it in the global picture, because it'd be overwhelming if I did."

The amount of back owed child support in Tennessee is in the billions and realistically, the state will likely never come close to collecting all of that money.

The statistics are sobering.

There are 450,000 children in the child support system in Tennessee.  Of those, 318,000 cases involve orders for payment from a parent, making Tennessee the state with the eighth largest case load in the country.

Last year, $104 million in support went uncollected.

For the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which manages the child support system, it means there's a lot of room for improvement.

"I've been in the business for 21 years and sadly, it is a business," said David Sanchez, the assistant commissioner at DHS.

He Nashville's News 2 Tennessee is in the business of making sure children and their families are taken care of.  It's a business they take very seriously and also one they are trying to reform.

"Our biggest challenge currently, is our inability to effectively serve documents against individuals who don't necessarily want to be served," explained Sanchez.

The state spends a lot of time trying to find parents and get them into court.

Houston County is currently testing a pilot program where parents receive a phone call reminding them to make payments and appear in court.

Sanchez said, "We saw a substantial increase in collections and those individuals actually coming into court, as well."

Another problem, according to Sanchez, is cutting through the red tape.  Eighteen years worth of payments, for example, can add up to a lot of paperwork.

Tennessee is trying to streamline the process by making it easier for parents to pay by putting the system online.

"That will actually be a substantial amount of savings to Tennessee taxpayers," added Sanchez, "because we won't have to pay as much in postage, and certainly the immediacy of a person's paycheck being dispersed will be much, much quicker."

Maybe most importantly, the state acknowledges the need for more education on the child support system.

Rosenberg told Nashville's News 2 a lot of time in his courtroom is taken up by parents who want to do the right thing, but are filing the wrong paperwork because they don't understand the process.

"It would be better if we had a lot more education involved in that," he said.

Sanchez also said the economy is a major roadblock when it comes to collecting the some $753 million in child support that should've been paid out to Tennessee children last year.

While its unlikely the state will collect 100% of the money owed, Sanchez said DHS is hopeful changes in the future will make a difference.

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