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West Virginia Supreme Court Gets It Right on Child Support Case
Background: Ex-cons and "deadbeat dads' are two of society"s least favorite groups. As a result, it"s hard to formulate and implement reasonable policies and laws concerning the two. A new Department of Justice study on reducing prisoner recidivism focuses on an important but little-mentioned problem ex-offenders face--the crushing child support debts which accrued while they were behind bars. Upon release, child support enforcement agencies attempt to collect huge arrearages--sometimes $20,000 or more--out of dead broke, unskilled, and uneducated ex-offenders. To learn more, see my recent co-authored column, New Justice Department Report"s Recommendations Could Reduce Prisoner Recidivism (Chicago Sun-Times, 10/26/07). Recently the West Virginia Supreme Court showed that someone in authority somewhere has some brain cells firing when it comes to child support. Usually an ex-offender owes his child support to the state to repay the cost of welfare for the child's mother. In this case, it appears that the money is owed to the mother. Inmates could get break on child support by Justin D. Anderson Charleston Daily Mail November 13, 2007 Family court judges no longer will be able to refuse to adjust child support owed by parents who lose their jobs because they go to jail, following a recent state Supreme Court decision. Prior to the decision, an inmate would serve out his or her sentence only to emerge from jail owing big money in back child support because the payments were based on prior income. "It happens and it's horrible," said Jennifer Ransbottom, a lawyer in the case. "You're already at a disadvantage when you get out of jail. The job market isn't great for somebody with a felony on their record." West Virginia has lagged in setting a uniform standard in this subject for family court judges to follow, said Ransbottom, who represents prisoner Christopher Adkins. Adkins is a Cabell County man who pleaded guilty last year to having sex with a 16-year-old girl with mental difficulties who was living with him and this then wife. He was sentenced to 2-10 years in prison. By the time he pleaded guilty, Adkins and his ex-wife, Angela Clay, had been divorced for nearly two years. Child support had been set at $392.67 per month for Adkins to help with the couple's two children. Adkins lost his job as a truck driver because of the guilty plea. He twice petitioned Cabell Family Court Judge Patricia Keller to readjust or eliminate his child support obligation because his financial situation had changed. Adkins asked that Keller either set the payment at the minimum allowed by law -- $50 per month -- or calculate the payments as if he were earning minimum wage, not the $9.12 an hour he made as a truck driver. Adkins said his mother would have been able to pay $50 per month to keep him current. Keller refused to readjust the payment. "It is his fault that he cannot work," Keller wrote in her order. "When he committed the crime, it was the same as voluntarily quitting his job and therefore he cannot reduce his child support." Adkins appealed to the state Supreme Court, which last week reversed Keller's decision in part and sent the case back to her court. "In sum, we find that incarceration does not relieve a parent of the obligation to pay child support," wrote Justice Joseph Albright for the court. "Nonetheless, the amount of child support a parent who is incarcerated may be ordered to pay must be calculated on the actual income and assets available to the person during confinement." Adkins is currently in arrears on his child support, Ransbottom said. According to his petition for review, the state Bureau for Child Support Enforcement has already taken steps to revoke his driver's license. Clay's lawyers with West Virginia Legal Aid, Hoyt Glazer and Mark Toor, characterized Adkins' argument as realizing a benefit for criminal conduct. "If a parent -- incarcerated or otherwise -- fails to pay a child support obligation, the needs of the child do not change and the burden of supporting the child does not evaporate," Clay's lawyers argued in court documents. The way family courts have considered this issue varies statewide. Some will not waver from ordering child support calculated using a criminal's pre-incarceration wages. Others calculate the support by assuming the prisoner makes minimum wage. And some set a minimum $50 per month payment. Some eliminate the obligation altogether for incarcerated parents. Read the full article here.