THE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES – SOME FACTS AND SOME FICTION

By: Michael Louvier

“The Mississippi Department of Human Services is dedicated to serving others while providing a wide range of public assistance programs, social services and support for children, low-income individuals and families. The agency seeks to empower families so they can become self-sufficient and responsible for their future success.” (Source: MS.gov)

The family law office of Matthew Poole fields many telephone calls and emails with a similar message: The DHS is handling a child support case for me and they aren’t doing anything. Before you roll your eyes and assume that this article is a “hatchet-job” against the DHS, please understand that this is not at all my intention. Fact is, the DHS has many hard working and dedicated case workers and social workers who are doing the very best that they can. As with many of our government employees, both State and Federal, they are very often over-worked and under-paid.

With that said, let me get right to the actual point of the article: What the DHS does and what they don’t do, as it relates to a child support case.

The Department of Human Services acts as a “debt collection agency” for the State of Mississippi. That is, the child support division, through the many case workers and attorneys, strive to enforce the statutory guidelines regarding child support against punitive parents. This usually means fathers of children, either unwed or divorced, who are neglecting to adequately provide financial support for their children. The DHS will take on such cases, free of charge, for individuals who qualify. And that is the key element to this difficult equation: there are so very many individuals who qualify because of their low income. It stands to reason that the lower income single parent needs the child support funds more urgently than the DHS can accomidate. This fact creates a “Catch-22” (my apologies to Joseph Heller) in that these cases are of vital importance to the parent trying to raise a child (or in many instances children) without sufficient funds and yet the DHS is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of cases in each and every county throughout the State of Mississippi and; therefore, the system is slow and the receipt of these vital funds is delayed. The longer the delay, the more vital the funds become. And this circular pattern continues and will continue ad nausium.

Once a Judgment for Support has been obtained by the DHS through the Chancery Court of the county wherein the child (or children) resides, there are several ways that the Judgment can be enforced. The most common way is through wage garnishment. The DHS can garnish the pay of the punitive parent as much as 35% of the paycheck. Unfortunately, many of these fathers simply change jobs, and now the DHS must become “private investigators” to seek out and find the new place of employment. This game of cat and mouse is very common. Another tool at the disposal of the DHS is the interception and seizure of any tax refund that the punitive parent is entitled – State and/or Federal. This power is quite effective, unfortunately it is only a “once-a-year” tool. The DHS can have the driving privileges of the punitive parent suspended. And finally, if the amount owed becomes substantial enough and there is no reasonable efforts to pay, the punitive parent can be incarcerated. These last two measures are an effective motivation for a parent to pay; however, if these options are employed by the DHS, this does nothing to financially support the child. The punitive dad is now driving on a suspended driver’s license or worse, he is in jail…but little Johnny is still going to bed hungry.

Over-worked with massive and ever growing case loads, while seldom appreciated and most definitely under-paid and for the reasons stated above often incapable of making a real difference – this is the unfortunate status of the Department of Human Services.

Some things that the DHS cannot do for their clients (or payors) include the enforcement of a schedule of visitation, nor can the DHS dictate the manner in which collected funds are spent.

All too often, a parent will complain that his child support obligation is being satisfied (either voluntarily or though some collection/garnishment activity) however the custodial parent will not allow for any substantial visitation with the child. This is not something that the DHS will assist you with. Another common complaint is that the mother is using the child support funds on herself: getting her hair and nails done or buying new clothes for herself but not the child. Again, the DHS is not interested in this type of problem. And while the DHS cannot and will not assist you with these issues that are relevant to the best interests of the welfare of the child, these are certainly NOT excuses or valid defenses for not satisfying a child support obligation.

Michael Louvier received a B.A. from University of New Orleans (1988) and a J.D. from Mississippi College School of Law (1994) and is currently a contributor to the blog articles for attorney Matthew S. Poole. Michael is married 28 years (Tammy) and they have 2 children (Amy, 25 and Nick, 20).

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