It's 10 a.m. in Hennepin County Family Court, and the nine people leaning over worksheets in a small conference room make a compelling case to update a familiar bumper sticker so that it would read: I'd rather be working.
One man sips a large cup of coffee -- not a Starbucks, but a bargain-priced McDonald's. He listened intently as staff attorney Virginia Kuberski walks the seven men and two women through the 20-page, "Expedited Child Support Process Motion to Modify Child Support."
The gathering is further proof of the human toll of Minnesota's 8.4 percent unemployment rate. Hennepin is one of many counties scrambling to deal with a surge in the number of divorced parents requesting reductions, sometimes significant, in their child-support payments.
But what worries administrators might seem odd: Why aren't more people coming in?
"We are nervous that people don't realize that, although the court issued their order to pay child support, the court doesn't monitor their employment status," said Reggie Wagner, supervisor of Hennepin County's Family Court Self Help Center (www.mncourts.gov/selfhelp). "The burden is on them to get this started."
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said cases of child-support payments recouped through unemployment benefits have nearly tripled in a year.
"I think we would see even more people [requesting relief] if those filing fees weren't prohibitive," she said.
The $400 to $500 filing fee isn't the only barrier. This is a different group of parents (mostly fathers, but some mothers) than the typical seasonal worker familiar with the system. Most have held steady jobs for years and are unaware of what to do when they lose them. Others are too embarrassed, too depressed or too optimistic about their job prospects to file a motion to modify. As savings dwindle and they fall behind in payments, they face driver's license suspensions, jail time and other miserable options.
Judges share tales of fathers living out of their cars or moving back in with aging parents. Parents on the receiving end have it no better, forced to care for their children on far less.
"People who rely on child-support payments are not spending them on Concordia Language Camp," Gaertner said. "The overwhelming majority are of an income level where child support is collected to pay for the basics -- food, clothing, shelter, health care."
Similarly, stories of fathers who brazenly shirk their financial obligations -- while tantalizing -- are few. Even before the recession, the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reported that two-thirds of fathers not meeting their responsibilities earned poverty-level wages. Those who do run must be held accountable, of course, as should custodial mothers who squander funds or ignore a father's right to parenting time.
"My general impression," Gaertner said, "is that there are a lot more people cutting back on their own spending to make sure they provide for their kids. It's because of a commitment to their children, and not because they're afraid we're going to throw them in jail."
The best bet, then, is to get to court quickly and fully prepared. "Put the most accurate information about your financial situation in front of the court," Wagner said. "Your house is in foreclosure? You're going on unemployment? Your hours have been cut significantly? The court will say, 'Give me proof.'"
Wagner, who has seen a 20-percent increase in workshop participants in a year, said that a third courtroom has been opened to help meet the growing demand. In addition, her office is working with Hennepin Country Child Support to roll out a pilot program to alert people likely to qualify for a reduction in child support; the goal is to cut the months-long process down to a week, or even days.
Still, not every income drop translates into a reduction. Molly Olson, founder of the Minnesota-based Center for Parental Responsibility, www.cpr-mn.org, said some fathers are refused reductions because they are deemed "voluntarily" under-employed or unemployed.
"The law should not be discretionary, but it is," said Olson, who founded CPR 10 years ago to lobby for family law reform. Some fathers, she said, feel like they are battling a "Kafkaesque bureaucracy."
Wagner said it's complex. "Do we see this being raised in recent orders by magistrates, even in this economy? Yes. Does it always make sense to us at self-help center? No." She recalls one landscaper who didn't get the second, part-time, job he was counting on and, still, the magistrate cut him no slack. "He was told that he could work 40 hours and that he had a responsibility to take care of his kids. This is a difficult area, and very fact-dependent."
Clearly, though, most parents are trying to meet their commitments. They need support, not shaming.
Wagner recalls one divorced couple who agreed to suspend the father's $375 monthly payments for six months, at which time he'd add $50 a month to make up for the loss.
"You could just tell it was so important to him to do right by his child," Wagner said.
Gail Rosenblum 612-673-7350 firstname.lastname@example.org