For many of us, using social services is the simplest (certainly the cheapest) way to collect child support. If you can be patient, and most of us can, you’ll be likely to get your money eventually, and you can’t beat the price.
Increasingly, custodial parents working to get the child supportthey’re supposed to be receiving are calling on their state’s social services agency to collect it for them. The agency goes by different names (DHR, HRS, Social Services, Child Services, etc.) in various states. If you don’t know what it’s called in your area, just call your local bar association and ask for the name of the government agency that helps people collect child support.
Social services will collect your child support for you, and their charge for doing so is a nominal fee of $25 or so. That’s a wonderful service, and there’s no way we lawyers can compete with the price. Social services has easier access to the national Data Match system, and they can call more easily on the state enforcement tools like suspending driver’s licenses, professional licenses, and hunting and fishing licenses. The reason people don’t make more use of Social Services, though, is that there are some drawbacks to using them.
First, it often takes forever. In most states, the social services agency has a crushing backlog of cases. They do the best job they can handling so many files, but the fact is that it just takes a long time for them to deal with any individual case.
In many states, Social Services has a little of a “cattle call” feel. I can’t say with confidence what experience you’ll have collecting child support, but I can tell you how it works in my area. You call the number for child support collection, and they assign you a date and time. When you show up, you sit in a room with 25-50 other custodial parents and hear some speeches, then you have a lot of forms to fill out, and then you go home until somebody calls you. It’s difficult to find out the status of your case, and you question constantly whether you should go ahead and hire a lawyer.
The fact is, though, that if you are patient and wait for the process to take care of itself, you’re likely to get your money eventually. That’s what Sondra did. She had been listening to Dad’s sob stories for most of the eight years since they had divorced, and she had ended up scrimping and saving her income as a bookkeeper to pay for raising their two daughters. “I got by,” she says now, “but it hurts me even now to know what the girls had to do without.”
When she finally got fed up, and as the cost of the girls’ activities climbed higher and higher, she decided to call Social Services. It took her more than 18 months from the first phone call, and she calls the whole experience “pretty damn miserable,” but she’s getting regular child support now, and Dad is paying back the unpaid child support together with interest. Is she glad she did it? “Absolutely.” Is she glad she used Social Services instead of paying a big fee to a lawyer like me? “Yeah, I guess so.”
Another problem with Social Services is that there are limitations on the cases they can take. If you don’t have any idea where the payor is, Social Services can enter the delinquency on the national Data Match system, and you may get good results, but Social Services in most states won’t squander its precious resources doing a lot of detective work. Also, the system Social Services uses to prosecute distant payors is pretty cumbersome, so if you’re in a different state from the payor, know that it’s likely to take even longer.
A widespread myth is that Social Services gives first priority to cases where the state is providing support in the form of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). This is just that, a myth. By law, Social Services must make its services available, and assign equal priority to, all parents. It shouldn’t matter, (and I believe it doesn’t matter) whether you’re receiving support from the government.