Baby daddy woes. Baby momma woes, for that matter.
More than 7,000 Shelby County parents met the criteria to lose their driver's licenses for child support back pay last year but only a small fraction took part in a privately-run state program designed to help them get back on track.
And it costs big bucks.
Some say the initiative, called Project Drive, is just another road block in the system. The private company, called Maximus, is contracted through the State of Tennessee to run the county's child support services. Maximus says Project Drive is a tool used to help parents make good on back child support but the program comes with a cost, only a handful may be able to afford.
"They say I owe $17,500 but they don't even know if this child mine." One Shelby County man says his license is suspended after falling drastically behind on child support payments for an eight year old girl. Michael asked for anonymity for this interview. With two felonies on his background, he says finding a decent job is a problem. "Don't think they should continue to suspend the people's license because of back pay on child support, or whatever, that's totally unfair. What's a man supposed to do, how he's going' get back and forth to work?"
He says he paid Project Drive to reinstate his license. But after he started their payment plan, he struggled to find steady work and his license was suspended again. "I paid all this money to get my license reinstated, went through all this trouble standing in lines and they still suspended my license because of child support."
Project Drive aims to reinstate licenses for a discounted fee of $750 to get people back on track with child support obligations. Unless they take proactive steps, those who don't pay child support for three months face license suspension.
Chuk Roberts from Maximus says, "It's an effective stronghold. It is a lot of times you won't hear from an individual, unfortunately, unless you take such measures." While he says about 2,000 licenses were revoked last year, we've learned fewer than 5% took part in Project Drive. That's just 90 people.
I asked him how he would rate the success of project drive. "I think it's a great program. Unfortunately, we have a lot of individuals that still have a hard time because of the economy meeting that reduced rate, but it has helped a lot of individuals," says Roberts.
However, some say Project Drive is just another barrier in the system. Steve Conn with Medical Testing Resources says they handle more than 600 paternity tests each year. He says many cases involve preparing paternity work for men who struggle to pay bills, after their licenses were suspended. "If you can't transport yourself, if you can't maintain your job, of any consequences of all, coming up with $750 to get your license back is a real stretch and out of the range of many people," says Conn.
According to the 2011 Census, Shelby County's per capita income is about $25,000. That $750 fee is 36% of their gross monthly income. In fact, Project Drive initially charged $350 in 2011 but then the fee spiked and 50 fewer people participated.
"Phew! It's just unbelievably too much. Financially, I'm not able right now to pay that amount," says Michael.
I asked Roberts, "If their license is suspended how are they supposed to get to and from work to pay make the money to pay that back child support payment?" Roberts responded, "If the license is already suspended one of the things we do to be fair with an individual if they can tell us I have a prospect that is going to hire me for employment, however my license is an issue."
Roberts says they do waive license reinstatement fees to those who offer proof of a potential employer but he notes it's on a case by case basis. "We have to look at the actual amount we're charging for these programs and try to find a mean or feasible fee." Roberts says they plan to reduce the fee to $500 for their next initiative in July.
By then, Michael says he hopes he's completed payments on a paternity test for the eight year old girl he suspects is not his child. Despite the outcome of that paternity test, the state says he's still responsible for the nearly $18,000 in previous child support back payments. He has been labeled 'father' by default because he "didn't show up for court in Dresden, Tenn., is kind of far. Didn't have no transportation to get there."
After our interview with Roberts, Maximus said in an email, "....with the recent change in management, some of these initiatives will be re-evaluated and possibly revamped to serve our population of cases to get the children of Shelby the support they deserve."
Before the initiative started in 2011, Maximus says those behind in child support were required to pay the state's penalty of three times the child support back pay amount.
The $750 fee from project drive is applied toward the delinquent child support account.
As for Maximus' contract with the state, that ends in July of 2014.
Maximus offers another program for non-custodial parents whose licenses have been suspended. It's offered year round and called "Handling Obligations Today." Here are the program requirements:
Each participant will be required to comply with the following program requirements. Noncompliance can result in the participant being held in contempt. While in the program, enforcement proceedings for nonpayment of child support will be temporarily suspended. However the regular monthly amount due will still continue to accrue.
Representative G.A. Hardaway fought the privatization of Child Support Services. He says suspending a license doesn't help the family and calls the $750 fee outrageous. He suggests attaching a payroll check, or placing a lien on someone's property. Hardaway says Project Drive is about money for Maximus, not the children. "I would suggest to you that it's a figure based on the bottom line for Maximus to make money or to meet the benchmarks in order to keep their contract. It is my belief that Maximus would not have that contract today if it wasn't for the cozy relationships and the revolving door that existed between government, state government, the administration within DHS, and the corporate executives with Maximus."
I asked Hardaway if he is looking into Maximus. "Let's just say there will be more to come on this. I get more complaints on Maximus than any other issue dealing with family services and juvenile justice," says Hardaway.
Hardaway would not go into detail about any possible legislation to keep Child Support Services out of the private company's hands. But he says it's something we could see in next year's session.
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