Thursday, April 7, 2011
The Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office receives an average of 100 referrals for child support cases each year.
If plans for a new five-county collaborative agreement are approved, there soon could be more resources available for those cases. According to the proposal, Callaway, Cole, Gasconade, Maries and Osage counties would form a partnership in which two full-time prosecutors and four full-time support staff would handle all of the child support cases for those counties.
Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Wilson said Callaway would account for approximately 28 percent of the anticipated case load.
“The benefit to Callaway County is — as in the past — we have three prosecutors here and one of them handles the child support cases, and that takes about 10 percent of their time. So you have one person spending about four hours a week,” Wilson said. “Now you’re talking about two full-time prosecutors, and 1/4 or 1/3 of their time will be focused on Callaway County.”
He said the state already as approved a budget for the proposed joint office. The money will be fronted by Cole County, which will be reimbursed by the state.
“Now it’s a matter of the counties themselves approving the agreement,” Wilson said. “It requires the approval of the county commissions, the circuit clerks and the prosecuting attorneys.”
He said Callaway County Circuit Court Clerk Judy Groner has been attending the partnership meetings with him, and a meeting with the Callaway County Commission has been scheduled.
Wilson said the proposal for the partnership was prompted in part by changes in recent years in the way appellate courts interpret Missouri’s current child support laws, which require defendants to prove “good cause” as to why they are unable to provide monetary support.
“Case law started to change with the appellate courts trying to determine what constitutes good cause or not. It’s become much more difficult for prosecutors to prove a parent isn’t paying without good cause,” Wilson said. “When I first started, there were very few things that constituted ‘good cause.’ Now the courts have gotten more lenient.”
Another potential source of change could soon come from the Missouri Senate. Wilson said there currently is a bill pending there to modify the child support statute to remove the phrase “good cause” and put in a catch-all so it could still be used as a defense.
“The state would just have to prove child support hasn’t been paid, but (the defendant) could raise the defense that they were unable to pay,” Wilson said.
Even with those changes, Wilson said the way child support cases are handled in Callaway County would remain the same. As a level C county, he said Callaway County cases have to be referred to the prosecuting attorney’s office by the Family Support Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
“They are the state entity responsible for keeping up with child support — who pays, how much they pay, how it is paid,” Wilson said. “If they have a case where a parent has been ordered to pay child support and they are behind or not paying, they refer it to us for prosecution.”
Because prosecution of child support cases is paid for based on a contract with the state, the referrals must come from FSD — the prosecuting attorney’s office cannot take a case based on someone coming in with a complaint. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Casey Clevenger — who spent the past four years prosecuting child support cases in Callaway — said the process can be frustrating for custodial parents who need their money sooner rather than later, but the Family Support Division is the investigating agency in such cases, and the attorneys can’t do anything with a case until asked.
“The Family Support Division sometimes does things to try to get people to pay — they have their own means of getting that,” Clevenger said. “They will exhaust all their resources before coming to us.”
“I’m sure to some people it seems like a red-tape, bureaucratic nightmare,” Wilson said. “It seems like a red-tape, bureaucrat nightmare sometimes too, but that’s the way we have to do it.”