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Missourians struggling to keep up on child support face ‘perpetuating cycle,’ say local attorneys

Stephanie Lummus (at left) is the veterans advocacy project attorney for St. Francis Community Services’ Catholic Legal Service Ministry, and Michael-John Voss is co-founder and special projects director of ArchCity Defenders.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

When Stephanie Lummus first entered nonprofit legal work, she didn’t expect that her efforts to represent homeless people and help them exit poverty would so often revolve around child support. But she estimates that at least three-quarters of her homeless clients are dealing with that issue – and it’s not a simple one.

“The enforcement mechanisms in place in the state of Missouri for those folks that have resources and just don’t feel like supporting their children are usually appropriate … [but] what we’re talking about is the vulnerable and the disenfranchised,” Lummus said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, “the folks that have run into difficulty or catastrophe in life and need modification, and they can’t get it.”

As the veterans advocacy project attorney for St. Francis Community Services’ Catholic Legal Service Ministry, Lummus understands the complicated forms and processes that those struggling to make child-support payments can seek out. But most people don’t – least of all her clients.

“Then you have to figure out how to get through the court system, which is a whole ’nother issue,” Lummis said in conversation with host Don Marsh. “And all of that takes time.

“Meanwhile the driver’s license is suspended – maybe a criminal non-support charge has been issued – and you’re not going to get a modification for seven to eight months anyway. So if you can, as a low-income person or someone who is vulnerable, figure that system out, then you’re fine. But most of my clients – they can’t even begin to understand. They’re trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from.”

Michael-John Voss, co-founder and special projects director of ArchCity Defenders, also joined the discussion about noncustodial parents who fall on hard times and have a legitimate reason for struggling to make child-support payments.

He described it as “a huge issue,” with almost $114 billion worth of outstanding arrears in child support across the country as of 2015.

“We’ve criminalized poverty in the United States in various forms, and one of the main ways that we’ve done that is through child support,” he said.

Both guests emphasized that while there are indeed some parents who refuse to take responsibility for children, the people that they work to represent and advocate for face extenuating circumstances.

Those struggles, combined with an enforcement system that “hasn’t evolved” since it was first instituted in 1975, Voss said, can quickly escalate to criminalization of a lack of resources. He explained that after 12 months of missed payments or $5,000 owed, the noncustodial parent then faces a felony charge.

“Then they’re looking at jail time and incarceration,” Voss said, “so what you’ve done is instead of helping somebody make those payments and care for the child, you’ve removed them. You’ve – one – suspended their license, and – two – locked them up in prison because of their inability to pay.”

Lummus added that even after prison such parents often face “a perpetuating cycle.”

“They can’t get a job because they have a criminal record, and then they can’t get a job so they can’t pay their child support,” she said. “Generally their driver’s license is suspended, so the court is requiring them to go to work but they can’t drive to get there. So it’s a cycle that keeps perpetuating, and when you stop and think about that in the aggregate, it’s no wonder that the overwhelming majority of the homeless folks we deal with here in St. Louis are struggling with this issue.”

Voss said that it’s hard to get lawyers to take on these kinds of cases, and people are often at the mercy of “the leanings” of a particular judge.

“In the criminal context, you might be in front of a judge that thinks that probation’s appropriate given the fact that they don’t want to incarcerate somebody just because of their nonpayment – that doesn’t help the child to lock their father up or their mother up that’s not the custodial parent,” he explained. “But that probation sometimes triggers other consequences, because what you’re looking at is a felony conviction at the end of it if you don’t successfully complete the terms of probation.

“And what they usually request is that you pay the current plus some of the arrears. So if your current [payment], say, is $200 a month, and you’ve got $10,000, $12,000 in arrears, maybe more, they add another $150 on that. So you couldn’t pay the $200 to begin with – and now they want you to pay $350? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what they require, and that’s what the state looks for when they prosecute these cases.”

Voss noted that while some custodial parents work with the respective noncustodial parent to figure out a workable repayment strategy, it’s often a more complex problem.

“If the child’s ever received state benefits, some of those arrears are assigned to the state,” he said. “So no matter whether or not the custodial parent or former custodial parent wants to forgive and forget, if the state is entitled to those arrears, they’re going to come after them.”

Listen to the full discussion:

Related Resources
To seek assistance from St. Francis Community Services’ Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, which serves homeless and low-income veterans, call 314-977-5452. ArchCity Defenders offers resources to the homeless and those at risk of homelessness as well as people who are working to reenter society from the prison system. ArchCity Defenders can be reached at 855-724-2489.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Mary Edwards is a producer for St. Louis Public Radio's broadcast program, "St. Louis Symphony."
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.