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County families owed $3.9M in back child support

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By Taylor Riley

The county’s kids are suffering, according to a report by the county attorney’s office.

In a report obtained by the Local, there are currently 972 open child support cases in the county. This means, there is currently $3,994,347.67 owed in child support across the county.

Some people pay the custodial parent directly, but the vast majority make payments through County Attorney Virginia Harrod’s office, which is under contract through the state to make the collections and distribute the money to the custodial parents. The office does not get a percentage of the money.

There is little punishment for those who owe, said Harrod, which accounts for the high numbers of parents who do not pay on time or at all.

“There is pressure to not put people in jail,” Harrod said about the courts, due to a budget “in crisis.”

There are 164 cases that are 90 days or more without a payment and have $5,000 or more in arrearage owed, according to a report.

Harrod also thinks the nationwide drug problem could be a direct correlation to parents refusing to pay.

“People want this childish, immediate gratification,” Harrod said. “It makes me sad that children aren’t valued.”

The county attorney said she and the state have tried to find new ways to punish the perpetrators, including working with the Internal Revenue Service to garnishing pay and tax refunds and booting motor vehicles. If someone doesn’t pay, they can be in civil contempt of court; and if there is a lack of payment for six months or greater or over $1,000, the person can be charged with a felony.

“Animals at least have an instinct to hunt, feed and gather … humans cannot,” Harrod said about the many children who go without because their primary custodian is not paid. “These are my people, I know these families. It makes it so personal.”

The county attorney’s office child support enforcers have a thankless job, just ask Juliana Hayden and Shana Merritt. These women are in charge of new and old cases, both in and out of state, and make sure families are paid. They are also in charge of paternity testing and working with the courts.

From 1997-1999, Henry County was a leader in paid child support. But, in recent years, there are many trends the office has seen, including more children born out of wedlock and having to ask both parents for child support awarded to other members of the family.

There’s a stigma to paying child support, according to Hayden and Merritt.

“Just because they’re paying child support doesn’t mean they’re not involved,” Hayden said. “It’s a way to be involved.”

The women would like the community to know that they can stop by or call the office to receive a child support packet requesting services for paternity and/or child support.

“We just want to be here for the child,” Merritt said.