Putting a Face on Unpaid Child Support: Gabrielle’s Story

Posted January 26, 2012 in Child Custody and Support by

This article is part of an ongoing Lawyers.com series looking at the child support crisis in America. Other articles in this series include:


Anyone who’s faced poverty, debt or even unemployment knows that sometimes the daily struggle to stay afloat means you’re forced to make tough choices. Gabrielle, a separated mother of two living in Brooklyn, NY, knows the feeling all too well.

Prior to 2008, life was pretty good. She and her husband “Joe” had been married for 10 years, and had two kids: a boy and a girl. When they first became a couple, Gabrielle worked in advertising and had the higher income, but over the years Joe had gotten a job with his family’s business and become the main breadwinner in the family. After having children, Gabrielle was a stay-at-home mom before going on to open a second-hand kid’s clothing store with a friend.

Then everything changed. She and Joe split up around the same time her business partner left the company. Suddenly she found herself struggling to make ends meet: Her store was not yet thriving, but Gabrielle had to buy out her business partner. And, to add insult to injury, Joe wasn’t honoring his child support obligations.

More than once since they’ve split, Gabrielle and Joe have gone back to the Brooklyn Family Court to address the child support issue. First Joe was required to pay about $700 a month, but after a couple months of non-payment, the judge lowered it to $200 because he was unemployed. But — based on Joe’s promise he would get work as an EMT within six months — it increased to $1,000 a month.

More often than not, he paid nothing. And Gabrielle was faced with a difficult choice: Work hard trying to build a business while supporting herself and her children, or spend precious time trying to get her deadbeat husband to pay up.

“I haven’t really pursued any legal action because I just didn’t have the time,” Gabrielle says. “I couldn’t afford to pay someone to work in the store while I went to court, and I was working 6 days a week!”

She spent more than three years trying to make her business succeed before throwing in the towel. Still, she says, she worked hard to support herself and her kids, even if Joe wasn’t. “My store closed and I went to work at a new job the very next day,” Gabrielle says. “I have a very different work ethic than my husband, I guess.”

But even with a job, it’s tough to support a family of three and make ends meet in this economy. Today she and the kids get food stamps and are on Medicaid — and Joe owes more than $20,000 in unpaid child support.


Public Assistance, Poverty & Child Support

A recent US Census Bureau report, Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2009, found that more than one-quarter of all custodial parents were living below the poverty level. And mothers with custody are more likely to be impoverished than custodial fathers.

In total, the study found, 48.5 percent of parents who had been awarded child support also receive some form of public assistance, which includes Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, subsidized rent and temporary or general assistance. Of those who receive some form of assistance, about one-third of the parents also receive all of their child support payments, one-third received none and the remainder received only some of the child support they were owed.

You’d think that New York State would want to help Gabrielle get the money owed to her, particularly if it made her less dependent on public assistance. In fact, the New York Division of Child Support Enforcement says to parents who are collecting child support and temporary assistance:

“When you apply for temporary assistance you give the local social services agency the right to collect child support on your behalf. While you are on assistance, the social services agency will allow you to keep up to the first $200 of child support that is collected on your behalf each month, and the rest of the money collected will be used to reimburse the federal, state and local government for assistance paid to you.”

But the local social services agency with responsibility for Gabrielle’s case has done little to help her collect the unpaid child support.

“The family court system [is] supposed to have things in place to protect me and help me get the child support I’m owed,” Gabrielle says, “but they don’t seem to be effective.”


Little Assistance in Collecting Unpaid Support

Legally, the state can garnish a parent’s wages, worker’s compensation and unemployment payments, seize income tax refunds and put a lien on any property — such as a house or car — the parent owns, all in an effort to collect unpaid child support. The government can also suspend the non-paying parent’s driver’s license, deny them a passport, ding their credit report and even throw the delinquent parent in jail.

In Joe’s case, they’ve suspended his driver’s license, but that seems to have had no effect. He mainly works off-the-books jobs, so there are no wages to garnish. And when they put a lien on his bank account, Gabrielle says he simply opened a new account at a different bank.

Once he told Gabrielle that he was owed an income tax refund, which would be diverted to her. But when no money arrived, she checked with the authorities, who told her he’d never filed an income tax return.

With the help of his family, Joe has shown some willingness to pay child support — when it suits his own needs. In 2010, for example, his mother paid more than $10,000 in past-due child support so Joe and the kids could take a family trip to Spain.

This past summer, Joe’s mother again offered to pay the overdue child support so the family could take another trip to Spain. Gabrielle appreciates the opportunity for her kids to travel internationally and live in another culture. Plus, the support payment would help alleviate some of the family’s money woes. Gabrielle agreed to let the kids take the trip and Joe’s mom supposedly paid the agency that processes child support payments.

It was only after Joe and the kids had left the country that Gabrielle realized she’d been duped: There was no payment. As of January 2012, Gabrielle estimates that Joe owes about $30,000, including unpaid child support, interest and penalties.


The Harsh Consequences

Today, Gabrielle faces a tough dilemma: She can’t afford to hire a lawyer, and if she goes back to family court to fight for what she’s owed, Joe’s family might turn it into a costly battle.

“My fear,” she says, “is that his mother will hire a fancy lawyer and I will lose way more than just money.”

So instead, Gabrielle works two jobs and tries to take care of her kids on limited funds.

“I don’t think money should fall from trees,” she says. “But right now my whole life revolves around money — or the lack of it. I try to give my kids healthy meals — a different color food in each section of their plate — but sometimes it’s all beige because bread and pasta are cheap. And I hate that I can’t afford to make lunch for my kids [on weekdays], and they have to eat school lunch because it’s free. School lunches are disgusting, not nutritious.

“I don’t want a fur coat,” she says. “I just don’t want to worry about money.”

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