St. Louis County finds success in child support collectionSt. Louis County ranks high in the state in establishing paternity and collecting child support payments, according to Minnesota Department of Human Services reports.
St. Louis County ranks high in the state in establishing paternity and collecting child support payments, according to Minnesota Department of Human Services reports.
It’s something that county attorneys have worked tirelessly to achieve, County Attorney Mark Rubin said.
“We not only meet but continue to exceed national standards regarding paternity and child support, and that translates into doing the best we can to protect children and encourage good parenting,” Rubin told the Budgeteer. “I would applaud the parents who do step up. You’ve got to give credit for that. They’re stepping up and accepting responsibility.”
Establishing paternity and collecting child support is important for counties because they are required to provide assistance to single parents who qualify for programs such as welfare, medical- or child care assistance. When the other parent refuses to pay their court-ordered share, taxpayers foot the bill for public assistance.
In 2012, 71 percent of court-ordered child support was paid in St. Louis County, on par with the state average, according to the Minnesota Child Support Performance Report. For every dollar spent on collection, $5.25 was brought in, beating the state average of $4.50.
Although trailing some of the state’s rural counties, which see fewer cases, St. Louis County ranked high above other urban counties, including Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, in both collection percentage and cost effectiveness. Those counties have percentages of 64 and 62, respectively, and bring in just $3.25 and $3.57 for every dollar spent.
On the national level, Minnesota compares well to other states in child support distribution. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Minnesota ranks fourth in money collected per open case with an average of $2,397. The state trails only Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas in that category.
St. Louis County has seen results thanks to its collection strategies, Rubin said.
“We’re trying to help them do it earlier, rather than waiting until it’s too far down the road,” he said. “If payments start being missed, it becomes an impossible burden and people feel in over their ears.”
Ben Stromberg, an assistant St. Louis County attorney who works in the Public Health and Human Services Department, is the lead child support attorney for the county.
There are six lawyers from the St. Louis County Attorney's office who are working with child support cases. Three work on the Range and three work in Duluth: Stormberg, Jennifer Barry and Joanne Vavrosky.
Stromberg said he and fellow attorneys have focused in recent years on more aggressive strategies that get parents to get on track with their child support sooner rather than later. The law allows the county to suspend driver licenses and hunting- and fishing permits, garnish wages, deny student loan applications, levy bank accounts, put liens on property and institute forfeiture action.
The county has also been quicker to bring delinquent parents to the courtroom on contempt-of-court charges, an offense punishable by jail time, Stromberg said.
But those drastic measures aren’t necessary if the attorneys are successful in getting a court order that is manageable for the parent.
“I think the whole approach has changed in that in the old days it was more like trying to get a person to pay highest possible amount of child support,” he said. “That doesn’t do any good if they’re not paying.
“So we’re focusing on the front end to get a realistic order, and hopefully then the person will be more likely to comply with that. If they feel like they’ve got a chance to pay, and it’s a decent amount, then they’re more willing to pay than saying, ‘Screw this, I’ll never get out. They can throw me in jail if they want to.’”
However, taking legal action can have a major impact on the parent and ensure future payments, Stromberg said.
“Especially for younger people new to parenting, we’ve found it to be a very helpful tool to impress upon them the seriousness of it,” he said.
While stricter enforcement will surely lead to savings for county taxpayers, the county’s main objective in child support cases is to help parents build relationships with their children and end the need for public assistance, Stromberg said.
“Generally, people $30,000 behind don’t have much of a relationship with their children,” he said. “The reality is that the earlier you get the noncustodial parent used to paying, the easier it is for them to take an interest in knowing and supporting the children.”