California's rising unemployment rate is driving a steep increase in child support cases, as the newly jobless appeal for increases in monthly payments or argue that they can no longer afford the amounts ordered by the court.
In Los Angeles County, about 450 new cases are filed each day, double the amount at this time last year. More than 3,000 calls come in daily -- up 25% -- increasingly from custodial parents asking child support staffers to crack down on deadbeats. The number of parents seeking help with child support modifications has tripled during the last month and a half, with some parents showing up at 5 a.m. to wait in line.
"Can we handle it? No," said L.A. County Child Support Services Director Steven J. Golightly.
Family court judges and commissioners are calling it the worst avalanche of new cases they have seen in 30 years, many involving laid-off workers who have struggled to find new jobs.
Paradoxically, higher unemployment rates have led to a slight rise in the amount of child support collected this fiscal year, in part because the state can easily garnishee unemployment checks.
As child support money taken out of payroll checks dropped by more than $20 million through the end of February, compared with the same period a year ago, money withheld from unemployment checks nearly doubled, rising to $64 million from $34 million.
Parents who once hired lawyers or handled child support privately are now going to courts or child support services for help, according to staff members.
"I have never seen the situation as bad as it is now," said Christine Reiser-Juick, lead attorney at the state-run Office of the Family Law Facilitator in Los Angeles County Superior Court's Central Civil West Courthouse, which helps parents who cannot afford to hire attorneys.
Reiser-Juick, a 10-year veteran of the system, said her staff can assist about 150 people a day and regularly have to turn away an additional 60 to 80. Many of the people they see are newly unable to afford their payments or to provide their children with health insurance, she said.
It appears to be a national trend. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in late March reported a 39% increase nationwide in the number of divorced spouses requesting changes to child support agreements.
At the Central Civil West Courthouse, benches outside 16th-floor family courtrooms were full of parents, some with children in tow.
Martha Padilla, 35, of Santa Fe Springs listened as her ex-husband pleaded with a judge not to raise his $758 monthly payments for their three children. Rogelio Gallegos, 40, a delivery truck driver, said his monthly pay was recently cut from $3,000 to $1,900, and he had a new wife and two other children to support. He wanted to pay less.
"I understand, sir, but having children means making sacrifices," Family Court Commissioner Nicholas Taubert said.
Padilla, a restaurant cashier, had asked for increased payments but offered to make do with the status quo, which she said she relies on to pay for after-school child care. Gallegos, holding his head in his hands, grudgingly agreed.
Two floors above them, dozens more parents waited for their names to be called for child support mediation.
Amador Rios, a mechanic, pays $225 a month to support his 11-year-old son. He came to ask for a reduction after his workweek was reduced to two days, lowering his weekly pay to $160.
"I earn very little, and I have to eat and buy gas," Rios, 43, said as he sat next to the windows, waiting for his name to be called. "There's no work. You go out and look, and they don't have it."
County child support attorneys used to postpone unemployed parents' cases for a few months until they found work, but that is no longer an option, they said.
"There's no guarantee they'll find anything," said Barbara Catlow, head attorney at the Central Civil West child support office.
Most of the cases Catlow sees involve blue-collar workers, but child support officials say they are seeing the same phenomenon in low- and high-income areas, urban and suburban. In Orange County, family courts received 722 requests for child support modification in February, compared with 518 during the same month last year. In the Bay Area county of San Mateo, modification requests were up 30% in February.
"They are either furloughed and they are working less hours, or they have become unemployed and they are trying to avoid accumulating that debt," said Iliana Rodriguez, director of San Mateo County's Department of Child Support Services.
In L.A. County, child support staff withheld 144% more in child support from unemployment checks in February than in the same month last year. The rise in collections from unemployment checks has offset other drops, at least so far. In March, L.A County collected $47.7 million in child support, about half of what was owed and a 2% increase from the same month last year.
Many custodial parents who are owed child support are on the swelling welfare rolls. When the state tracks down fathers and mothers who are delinquent in those cases, their monthly payments offset state aid already paid out to their families.
But there are also signs that more middle-class families are relying on child support to make ends meet. Typically, about 25% of families in L.A. County child support cases have never received government assistance. That rose to 34% in recent months.
In Orange and Ventura counties, the number of parents who had never received assistance and were referred by social services to child support offices increased 14% as of February, compared with the same period last year.
Child support officials said the increases underscore the needs of families who have fallen on hard times but still have resources that make them ineligible to receive welfare, food stamps or other aid. Getting child support owed to them is crucial, said Jennifer Coultas, a lawyer and special assistant to L.A. County's director of Child Support Services. "It's just really hard out there for families."
Coultas and other county child support officials are pushing for California to rethink its "fair share" formula for monthly child support payments owed by noncustodial parents. The guidelines, which take into account how much time children spend with each parent, work out to roughly 25% of the noncustodial parent's net income after state and local taxes for one child; 40% of net income for two children; and 50% of net income for three children. If a parent becomes unemployed, the payments may be adjusted based on new income -- the unemployment pay -- but only after an appeal to a judge for a modification.
Other states, such as New York, which is second only to California in child support collections, take both parents' income into consideration and allow judges to issue "poverty-level" child support orders if a parent becomes unemployed.
"Those states are quicker to respond to economic downturns," Golightly said.
In San Mateo County, Rodriguez, who also serves as president of the state Child Support Directors Assn., compares massive child support debts to foreclosed homes that people walk away from, unable to pay the mortgage.
"At some point, you set the bar too high and the person just feels defeated," she said.
But any attempt to change payment guidelines is likely to face strong opposition from mothers' groups. So far, state child support officials have not taken a position on whether changes should be made in light of the deep recession.
"We understand it's a difficult economic time, but we are focused on collecting child support and making sure those monies go to the individual it is owed to," California Department of Child Support Services spokeswoman T. Maria Caudill said. "Oftentimes, child support makes the difference between a family remaining economically self-sufficient and applying for aid."Child Support Modification Los Angeles