Special court empowers parents

Stephanie Witucki
Domestic Relations Referee, Friend of the Court

Securing payment of child support by noncustodial parents is an important step toward engaging both parents to work together in parenting their child(ren). This proves very challenging when you have a noncustodial parent who is unable to contribute financially due to barriers such as unemployment, underemployment, lack of education, a monthly support obligation that may be in need of review based upon changed circumstances, as well as issues involving housing, transportation, substance abuse, mental health and a variety of other issues. Wayne County’s response to this challenge is POWER Court. On July 1, 2010, Wayne County Friend of the Court, in cooperation with the Third Circuit Family Court Bench, launched the POWER Court program. POWER Court is a specialized child support problem-solving court that accepts voluntary participants. POWER Court supports the Court’s efforts at improving upon the ways in which it serves the public. Both parents and children have an absolute need for the payer of support to have an increased ability to actually meet his or her support obligations. The focus of this program is to help break down the barriers that may be contributing toward the payer’s inability to fully meet his or her support obligation and offers a more therapeutic approach than the more traditional outcome of nonpayment of support resulting in sanctions such as jail time.

 The POWER Court acronym stands for Providing Opportunities for Work, Education and Respect and the program’s mission is to build a generation of financially and emotionally involved parents by providing resources to help ensure they are better able to make financial contributions and establish emotional bonds in the best interests of their children. Program goals include: (1) improving public service by assisting payers in identifying and obtaining wrap-around type social service resources, (2) increased collaboration between the Friend of the Court and local social service organizations, (3) removing the economic barrier of non-payment of child support between the parents so that children can, ultimately, benefit from both parents becoming more cooperative and the non-custodial/non-residential payer parent taking a more active role in their lives, (4) improving public perception of the Friend of the Court through outreach and education in a less intimidating environment, and (5) increasing Federal incentives by establishing regular payments and disbursements on cases with little or no prior payment history.

The majority of the participants referred to POWER Court for voluntary enrollment come from the child support enforcement dockets with the remainder referred from the case establishment docket where support obligations are just being established by way of initial orders. Upon enrollment and at the initial hearing before the designated program Friend of the Court referee, the participant meets with a case worker who assesses their needs as well as their barriers to paying support. The case worker submits the assessment to the referee, who then creates an individualized action plan with reasonable goals set which include a review hearing date, good faith payments toward their monthly child support obligations, referrals to various community service providers depending on the needs of the participant, and, in some cases, a referral to the Friend of the Court for review and potential modification of the current monthly support obligation in the event that there has been a change in circumstances since entry of the current child support order which may warrant a review. The case worker continues to follow up regularly with the participants to assist them with staying on track to meet their goals and the referee schedules frequent review hearings to monitor compliance and personal accountability. Participation in the program is a maximum of one year.

The community service providers who assist the participants are very important to the success of this program, which is why it is crucial for POWER Court staff to establish direct contacts within each agency relied upon by the program and maintain good working relationships with them. The service providers relied upon by POWER Court are very supportive of the program and are truly dedicated to assisting the participants in achieving their goals.

POWER Court recently held its third semi-annual graduation to celebrate some of the participants’ successful completion of the program. The graduation ceremony, which follows the participant’s final POWER Court review hearing, consists of recognition of the accomplishments of each graduate who is then presented with a certificate of completion and recognition of actively involved community service providers followed by cake! It’s always a proud moment for the graduates to hear about and reflect on all that they have accomplished while in the program. Some of POWER Court’s most memorable participants would include a gentleman who prepared his first resume with the assistance of a service provider, participated in a job readiness and financial literacy program and, ultimately, secured employment after having been unemployed for over two years. He had such a wonderful experience with the service provider that he also assisted his adult son with enrollment into their program and that son is now working on obtaining his GED through the same program. Another memorable participant would include a gentleman with a significant child support arrearage who had been unemployed for quite some time and had lost contact with his child. The gentleman secured employment while in the program, began making regular child support payments via income withholding, and reconnected with the custodial parent to establish a parenting time schedule by consent. POWER Court staff receives very positive feedback from the participants who often say “I wish a program like this would have been around sooner!”
Since the July 2010 program launch, POWER Court has serviced 234 cases. There are currently 73 active participants, of whom 32 percent lack a high school diploma or GED and 48percent have criminal records. All of the participants who enroll in POWER Court do so because they are unemployed and are unable to meet their monthly child support obligations. These participants have significant barriers to overcome but they are motivated to turn their lives around, which is easier to do when you feel that your efforts are being supported by others in the community, whether by community service providers, POWER Court staff, friends or family and especially when you are reminded that your children are depending on you.

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 Stephanie Witucki can be reached at Stephanie.witucki@3rdcc.org or (313) 224-7828.
 

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