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Kandiyohi Co., Minn., scores success with its child support pay system

WILLMAR - A new system Kandiyohi County implemented last year for processing contempt-of-court charges against non-custodial parents who fail to make child support payments is resulting in less court time and more money for kids.

The streamlined process started in August after County Attorney Jenna Fischer and Nancy Norbie, the supervisor of the county child support program, put their heads together to find a way to reduce a backlog of 200 cases.

During a presentation last week to the Kandiyohi County Commissioners' Human Services Committee, Fischer said in the past there was a lengthy "piecemeal" process of multiple summons sent and court hearings conducted for each case, a process that took time from social workers, attorneys, court staff and judges.

In the first seven months of 2012 - under the old system - 16 cases were processed.

Under the new system, which was implemented in August, 18 cases were heard in just one day. Through May of this year, 83 cases have been handled.

"It saved a ton of judge time," said Fischer. "We're dealing with a lot more cases in a shorter time."

The result is more parents are making child support payments.

"We've had fantastic results of getting child support to the kids of Kandiyohi County," said Norbie.

The new process, which needed approval from local judges before it could be used, involves setting aside two hours of court time on the first Friday of the month solely to hear child support contempt cases.

Prior to the start of court that day, county attorneys and social workers meet with each noncustodial parent to find out why he or she is not making the payments.

Fischer said about 75 percent of noncustodial parents do make child support payments without any problems.

Most of the targeted 25 percent fail to make payments because they are "uninformed" and usually start making payments after their first court session.

The remaining stragglers may be "reluctant" or "evaders" and need to be "motivated and prodded" or sometimes sent to jail. There are also those who are truly unable to make the payments and steps are taken to "enable" them, said Fischer.

Norbie said processing more cases more quickly means getting more child support money to kids from noncustodial parents who may have been making only partial payments or no payments at all.

Norbie, who is retiring today after 26 years working for the county in child support, said once parents start making a financial investment in their kids with child support, they become more involved with other aspects of their children as well.

Fischer said although the new method is working and the backlog is being chipped away, there are new contempt cases constantly being added, which means there are still more cases to process.

Also at the meeting, the commissioners approved a contract with Greater Minnesota Family Services, which operates a group home shelter care program for youth in Willmar.

Shelter Director Steven Michaud told the commissioners that in the last few years there has been a growing trend of youth coming to the shelter with more trauma: physical, emotional and sexual.

Physical trauma can be the result of a lack of prenatal care, fetal alcohol syndrome, neglect or brain damage from falls, he said.

Emotional trauma is linked to physical and sexual abuse the child may have experienced or witnessed.

All this ties into the next growing trend of increased "serious mental health concerns," said Michaud.

He said some kids come to the shelter with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

"The children we serve have higher needs," he said.

That means more therapy and counseling from shelter staff. He said the shelter is hoping to hire a psychiatric nurse specialist so that youth at the shelter will have access to care sooner. Because of a shortage of psychiatrists in the area, there's a waiting time of three to four months.

Having a specialist on staff would "fit nicely with these two trends we're seeing," said Michaud.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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