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Parents struggle to navigate confusing, complicated child support system

A photo of money Megan Haines said her ex-husband sent to his son.
Megan Haines
Megan Haines said this photo of money was sent to her son by her ex-husband.

A McLean County woman’s struggle to get overdue child support illustrates a complicated, and sometimes bewildering and frustrating system.

Megan Haines, 46, is divorced with a 13-year-old son. She lives in McLean and works in Lincoln at a photography business. She said her former husband works as a concrete finisher and at a landscaping firm.

“I haven’t seen any child support in over a year because my ex-husband has decided to avoid it in any way he can, and one of those ways is to work for a company that will pay him cash instead of an actual check where his wages can be garnished,” said Haines.

Haines said she is supposed to get $400 a month and her ex owes more than $5,000.

“He only has to give me a hundred dollars a week. It’s not like I’m asking [for] the world,” she said.

The last time she got support was when they sold a house and part of the proceeds were taken to clear up a backlog, she said. There has been nothing since July of 2022.

The ex-husband hung up when WGLT contacted him and has not responded to messages. The owner of the concrete firm and landscaping business has not responded.

Megan Haines started with the Illinois State Child Support Disbursement Unit. That’s the agency that processes child support payments from employers of non-custodial parents, and directly from those parents, based on court orders for child support. Every business in the state must report who it employs.

Haines said the disbursement unit struck out.

“They still say that there’s no record of him. They are not able to garnish anything because there is no record of him. They’re not giving anything back,” said Haines.

Unemployment compensation also gets deductions for child support payments. Haines said she has received nothing from that source, either.

She said the Child Disbursement Unit told her to go to the McLean County State’s Attorney’s office. The State Attorney General’s Child Support Enforcement Division represents the Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) in 93 counties across Illinois to establish and enforce child support orders.

In some counties though, including McLean, local prosecutors have a contract with the state to perform those child support enforcement actions. Haines said the state's attorney's office told her unless the child support agency is doing something on the issue, there's nothing they can really do for her because they work for the state — not for her.

“I was told that I could file an order to show cause as to why he's not paying child support,” said Haines.

Her lawyer wants $3,000 to file that order. That’s a big chunk of the amount of overdue support, and she said she can’t afford it anyway. She tried Prairie State Legal Services, a not-for-profit agency that helps some low- and moderate-income people with legal work. Haines said she was told they did not have staff resources to help her at the present time, but to keep checking back.

The state’s attorney's office declined to discuss specifics of any case, or even to do a broadly focused interview with WGLT about the issue.

Haines said prosecutors suggested she could go to the McLean County Law and Justice Center. On the third floor, there is a library. Sometimes there is a law student that can help with paperwork. She’s trying to go without an attorney and file either for free or for a minimum fee.

Other enforcement tools

One tactic the state uses to get non-custodial parents to pay up is by threatening or revoking drivers' licenses. Haines said her ex’s driver’s license already has been suspended. If a person gets a state or federal tax refund, the system is supposed to flag that and take money owed for child support from it.

Haines said she's received nothing.

Other enforcement tools the state has include professional license suspensions, diverting gambling winnings, property liens, and even suspension of hunting and fishing licenses.

All this has left Haines casting about for another way to pursue her claim and get what her son is owed and needs.

“I don’t think I am the only one that is going through this,” she said.

She’s not.

In the last 15 years, more than 5,700 child support orders have gone into effect in McLean County, according to data from the circuit clerk’s office. Some of those stay in effect for years or decades. State figures showed 3,700 orders in effect in McLean County for budget year 2018, and 3,600 last year.

Nearly $11 million in support was paid in 2018. About 30% of those payments were overdue. The total past due child support in McLean County topped $30 million. Last year, parents paid $15.1 million based on McLean County support orders. More than half the amount last year was overdue when paid.

State data showed more than 300,000 child support orders were in effect in FY 2018 and 285,000 last year. In 2018, nearly 153,000 children received payments; last year the number was 156,000. Non-custodial parents paid $789 million for their kids' support in 2018 and, like McLean County figures, more than 30% of the total was overdue when it came in.

Total unpaid child support in the state that year was $3.1 billion. Last year’s statewide tally was $736 million paid and 57% of it was late when paid. Total overdue support in Illinois last year was $2.7 billion. Data for other years and other central Illinois counties is here.

Those startling numbers are even more arresting when one considers the fact child support orders in McLean County, the state, and nationhave been steadily declining for more than 15 years.

The total of 139 child support orders filed in McLean County last year was down 74% since 2007. The five-year decline statewide was 5%. Experts say several other long-term trends contribute to the drop. There are fewer marriages and fewer divorces and so fewer support orders required. The Illinois divorce rate fell 34% between 1990 and 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control (crude divorce rate – per 1,000 population). There are fewer children as birth rates have declined. This is seen in shrinking college enrollment numbers as well. And there is a larger proportion of joint child custody agreements than there were decades ago.

Now, just because her son’s dad doesn’t show up on unemployment or employment rolls doesn’t mean Megan Haines is right about the under-the-table cash payment accusation. Businesses don’t have to tell the state who they hire as independent contractors. And the gig economy is a growing segment of the changing national and state economies.

“I think you have a lot more independent contractors who have gone into business for themselves. They may do the same kind of work, but now they do it on their own behalf and they have other clients that they contract with,” said State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria.

Koehler was one of the chief sponsors of a bill the governor signed into law this summer that will require businesses to report contractors to the employment register, people who get a 1099 form instead of a W-2 for income reporting. He said it won’t be a burden on employers who must report their regular workers to the state employment registry anyway.

“This is kind of a seamless system that they can make that change and have it follow exactly the same system as what happens with somebody who has a W-2,” said Koehler, adding a lot of people were on board with the bill, including the Illinois Attorney General's office.

“This is a way of trying to eliminate a hole in the system which would have a lot of people slipping through the cracks in terms of making a child support payment,” said Koehler.

A lot of people is the right phrase to use.

“We anticipate that this legislation could lead to approximately 19,000 additional families receiving support in any given month,” said Bryan Tribble, administrator of the Division of Child Support Services at the State Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS).

That’s about a 5% increase in the total number of families served when the law takes effect in January, he said.

The gig economy has been growing for decades, but it has been difficult to quantify just how big the sector has become.

Interestingly, Tribble said the way HFS got to the 19,000 estimate is through the pandemic. Enhanced unemployment insurance benefits approved during COVID let contractors and gig workers get unemployment insurance. In the past, they couldn’t. A lot of them did sign up. And when those payments stopped in October of 2021, Tribble said HFS overlaid that data with other data on new hires. Usually when someone goes off unemployment Tribble’s division gets a notice of employment of that person from a business within 45 to 60 days.

“And it's been like clockwork for about a decade or more. For the first time ever, this didn’t happen in Illinois,” said Tribble.

The rise of the gig economy finally became measurable by comparing the number of people who received unemployment benefits during the pandemic and those who did not re-emerge in the workforce. Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2017 there were 15.5 million people, or 10% of the workforce, who were employed as independent contractors, temps, and contract employees. Independent contractors comprised 7% of the workforce.

Tribble said closing the contractor loophole also will help the courts rule on a person’s ability to pay child support because courts will get the information, too. Illinois is in about the middle of the pack in addressing the issue. He said the track record in states that closed the loophole earlier shows it also helps parents who take care of kids have more consistent support. That streamlines it for the non-custodial parent as well.

“That’s going to lead to child support being set at an appropriate rate which is self-adjusting because it’s going to be whatever the percentage is of an individual’s overall income,” said Tribble.

There’s also a cap on the withholding notice, a limit set by Consumer Credit Protection Act guidelines, said Tribble.

Tribble said there’s no real difference in the percentage of high-income and low-income non-custodial parents who stiff their kids on support. Those numbers are a small portion of the total. He said the usual reason someone isn’t making payments is because they can’t.

Okay, back to Megan Haines’ case. As happens after some divorces, Haines said her ex isn’t in contact. Why does Megan think her ex is working?

“He is fond of sending my 13-year-old son pictures of large amounts of cash and showing him he’s got money and he is able to do the things he wants to do while we’re going to the food pantry for extra food,” said Haines.

She said there also are Facebook photos of him on job sites. Those are three years old though, and might not be enough to prove anything in court, if Haines could afford court.

Some people like getting paid in cash. Tribble said if the business that pays them follows the law, they’ll still show up in the employment registry. But that doesn’t always happen.

“If, however, a business is doing these types of things to hide what they’re paying or to avoid having to pay some payroll taxes or something else, then it’s not likely that this, in itself, is going to change that,” said Tribble.

He said this is an issue nationwide, adding his office focuses on the non-custodial parent, not the employer.

“If we can have some level of proof, whether that is social media, allegations by the other parent, etc. then we’re able to then pursue various collection remedies, whether those be administrative remedies like drivers’ license suspension or judicial remedies like a rule to show cause or contempt where we would show that the individual has the ability to pay but is refusing to do so,” said Tribble.

There also is a provision in the income withholding for support law that allows action against an uncooperative business.

“To where we would actually seek a finding of employer non-compliance. That comes with penalties of $100 per day per incidence where the employer was willfully refusing to withhold child support from the employees’ pay,” said Tribble.

Other roadblocks

In a complicated system, here’s one more detail that parents with children might not grasp. Tribble’s office is not involved in every child support case. He said the numbers of the ones it is involved in have been declining for a long time. He said the No. 1 reason is a parent may have a misconception that because their child support is going through the state disbursement unit, they are automatically enrolled in services through the division of child support services.

That’s not the case. Most families have to take a step to enroll. An exception is families who get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, who are auto enrolled. As an aside, that also hurts division numbers because TANF limits payments to 60 months of support and people might have to re-enroll if they go off that federal funded state run program. Different programs may also have differing prerequisites to qualify, insurance coverage for instance.

“They say you need to get insurance from an outsource. Well, then your outsource is $1,200 a month for insurance so, it’s either eat or have insurance, you know?” said Haines.

In fact, she said she did not know that disbursement unit enrollment does not equate to child support service help. Tribble encouraged non-custodial parents to call the Division of Child Support Services to call a customer service hotline at 1-888-447-4728. There are website and email access points as well. Often, he said, they can work with a legal representative and get the case back into court.

Tribble said the state is trying to fix the enrollment disconnect. A few counties in the state of Texas flipped the script and required families to opt-out of services rather than check a box to opt in. They did a study.

“And what it led to was far less delinquency accruing. Interestingly enough, both the parents having higher rates of employment and higher incomes and a reduction of families needing assistance through other means like SNAP or TANF, etc,” said Tribble.

Tribble said the state hopes to roll out the opt-out switch in 2025. It requires a federal waiver because the feds must have a signed application. He said Illinois is leading a national work group on the issue.

Tribble said another public act passed this spring and signed into law affects those who would pay, but can’t. They don’t have the money. His office will connect people who have overdue support but no job-to-career training and the Department of Employment Security. If they are not career ready because of a behavioral health issue — substance abuse or mental health related — Tribble said his division wants to connect them to services.

Some states have created some of these links to services, but Tribble said Illinois will be the first to put them all together in one cohesive package.

“If all of those things don’t work, then what we need to do is we’re going to need to get the case back into court,” said Tribble.

First, he said they will try to facilitate, and then maybe require action.

“We’re able to have a discussion as to okay why aren’t you making the payments. We’ve offered you these things, but we’re not getting at the underlying reason. What the court can do is to require the individual to then partner with these available resources to address that issue,” said Tribble.

And as a last resort, there is always the club of contempt of court available.

In other ways, Illinois is playing catch-up in the way it does child support. A handful of states have leveraged technology and embraced text messaging and emails to non-custodial parents, as opposed to snail mail. This has been tied to a higher rate of compliance. Tribble said Illinois now has those tools and has begun to work on them.

“It is difficult as all of that has to be done outside of our regular system which is COBOL based," he said.

COBOL is a computer programming language that came out in 1959. Banks and financial institutions still use it a lot because it’s very good at processing big numbers of transactions, records, or events. Not many new apps play nicely with it, though.

“That’s one of the things that is stopping us from being as innovative as we ordinarily would be. We would have been able to move forward with some of these things but for that,” said Tribble.

Koehler said the technology upgrades should have happened long ago.

“That’s been a proverbial problem we have had in the state. I think we’re now starting to try to catch up with that. Before, there was not money in the system to be able to address that,” he said.

Tribble said there’s money in the pipeline and the tech upgrades are expected to come through in 2025. Those also might help address the segment of the overdue child support population that not obstructionist, but simply less effective at getting the job done. Tribble said texting and emails resulted in a large increase in individuals reaching out and communicating with child support divisions in other states.

“We’re in the business of engaging with families and individuals and it’s far easier if those individuals are reaching out to us letting us know, ‘I’ve had this setback and lost my job’ or the other person has a new job. Those kinds of things are invaluable in our business,” said Tribble.

Illinois has made notable progress, he said, with historic or near historic high rates in metrics like establishment of parentage, payment of current support, collections of past due support, and the obligation rate — the rate at which support orders are being established.

For some, though, it’s still very complex, meaning Megan Haines and parents like her will keep trying to navigate the system.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.