In the Virgin Islands, more than 8,000 children and teens wait each month for support payments to arrive from parents who don’t live with them.
About 2,500 are disappointed. No payment comes.
It may be small consolation to know that the picture is similar in other U.S. jurisdictions. A U.S. Census Bureau report released in November shows that across the country in 2011 some $37.9 billion was owed to custodial parents (81.7 percent of whom were women) by non-custodial parents. Of that sum, 62.3 percent was actually received. Fewer than half the custodial parents received all that was due; others received only partial payments.
For collections and disbursements, the Virgin Islands seems to be doing a little better than the national norm, according to figures from Terryln Smock, director of V.I. Paternity and Child Support. The division collects payments from non-custodial parents and disburses them to the custodial parent for the support of the children.
Smock said that in the last fiscal year, approximately $12 million was due from non-custodial parents. Custodial parents received $8.2 million, or 68.3 percent of the total. The division actually collected almost $10 million, she said, but some was not distributed because of “tax offsets” or because the custodial parent could no longer be located.
Smock is sensitive to the fact that some people don’t like the Paternity and Child Support division. Both both nationally and locally it is changing and trying to play a less adversarial role, she said.
There are federal grants promote parental involvement and foster relationships between children and both their parents. Children who have solid relationships with their parents are more likely to do well in school and less likely to get into trouble with the law, Smock said.
Her office contracts with local non-profits to implement a federal Access and Visitation grant that promotes interaction between the non-custodial parent and his or her child.
“We want to make sure that we can build relationships,” she said. Not only is it critical to the child, “it’s important to the survival of our society that both parents have a relationship with their children.”
The office also encourages parents to work out their own agreement about payments. If they can agree on what it will cost to support the child or children, they can make an arrangement by consent, rather than going to court.
Of course, it isn’t always that easy. Some parents need a little help to do the right thing.
At bottom, the mandate of the division is twofold.
“We establish paternity and collect child support. That’s our jurisdiction,” said Smock.
Last year, on St. Thomas, there were 659 live births at the hospital, she said. Only 14 percent of those were to women who were married, with the assumption being the husband is the father. Of the 519 children born out of wedlock, paternity was acknowledged for 411. But for 108 babies, no father’s name was listed.
The division relies on mothers – and on DNA testing – to establish paternity in such cases.
“The law in the Virgin Islands is that every parent has an unavoidable obligation to support their children,” Smock said. “I think children need to eat … Your child is going hungry, and you’re hiding your assets?”
Payment amounts vary from case to case, but the government relies on a set of guidelines to establish base amounts: for one child, it’s 15 percent of the non-custodial parent’s available income. For two children, 20 percent, for three, 30 percent, and so forth. Someone making more than $6,000 a month may have to pay more, depending on circumstances.
Support obligations continue until the child is 18 – or up to age 22 if he is attending high school, vocational school or college.
Payments can be made by mail, in the office, or online via credit card.
“We try to make it easy for everybody,” Smock said.
If the payment doesn’t come voluntarily, the division has many tools for making collections. Some of them are federal mandates and some are discretionary. For instance, the division must send an Order of Income Withholding to the employer of the non-custodial parent, instructing the employer to send a certain amount of the person’s pay directly to the government each pay period.
Similarly, Paternity and Child Support can also attach Social Security and other retirement benefits, unemployment compensation, workman’s comp payments, even lottery payouts.
The division makes a quarterly credit report on anyone who is delinquent – that is, more than 30 days late in a payment, thus affecting his credit rating.
If a parent is more than $2,500 in arrears, the division has the authority and the discretion, to revoke his passport, drivers license and/or business license. In really hard core cases, it can enlist the U.S. Attorney’s Office to bring a criminal action. Conviction can result in a prison sentence, but Smock indicated such prosecutions are rare and more likely to result in a person being put on probation rather than actually serving time.
The point is to get support for the child, not to punish the parent.
Smock has been creative in her search for the money. She said Paternity and Child Support was first in line for lump sum retirement packages when the government encouraged retirement a couple of years ago. It was also quick to send out notices to Hovensa when it announced it was closing and paying severance packages.
A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.