Making a PACT: Working to keep families together

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Joe D's life is a mess.

The high school dropout has had a nasty split with his wife, Jessica, and has fallen behind in child support payments.

When Joe D. had a job, he was supposed to pay $400 per month. But the poor Michigan economy led to layoffs, and now he's $1,200 behind in child support payments.

To make matters worse, Joe D. has begun drinking heavily, rarely if ever sees his child, and now must face a judge for failing to pay his child support.

He could be tossed in jail for that. Joe D. has few options left, and none of them are good. He could make a deal with the Devil and run, which is never a clever choice. Or he could fashion a PACT with the system.

PACT stands for Parents and Children Together, and it's a court program aimed at helping these down-and-out-but-not-hopeless people.

The program is geared to help non-custodial parents bond with their children, pay child support, and receive any assistance they need through a plethora of local agencies.

"After a complete assessment of the entire situation, a plan of action is put into place for 'Joe D.' to enable him to gain control of the situation before it spirals to such an extent that he finds himself owing thousands of dollars in past due child support," said Stephanie Witucki, a caseworker for the Genesee County Child Support Problem Solving program.

PACT also may adjust what Joe D. pays for monthly child support, with reduced payments based on his current unemployment benefits.

A plan could be devised for him to make up his child support arrearage. Joe D. could be led to agencies that could assist him in obtaining his GED, or high school diploma.

Another agency could then provide Joe D. with a list of possible employment opportunities in the area.

He could also be directed to area programs that assist in getting work, such as STRIVE, No Worker Left Behind, and facilities that offer free computer and Internet usage to aid in his job search.

Finally, Joe D. would be given options and ways to address, assess and treat drinking or substance abuse problems.

And the court would establish parenting time for Joe D. so he could remain a necessary part of his child's life. If he needs help with parenting issues, he could be directed to programs for that too.

In Genesee County, PACT has been used by Family Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Theile since 2006 on a shoestring budget. Theile works closely with the Friend of the Court (FOC) Administrator Jack Battles in this program. Battles relies on the input of PACT Coordinator Natalie Zerka and Witucki.

But the court received a huge boost recently in the form of a $355,000 federal and state grant.

On December 4, the grant and PACT was explained as Theile and Battles welcomed Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan and Marilyn Stephen, who heads the Michigan Department of Human Services Office of Child Support.

"This is a problem-solving court," Theile said of PACT and its partners. He and others said PACT focuses on early intervention in cases, such as the Joe D.'s, where job loss, low income and family issues point to a parent who is or will have difficulty making child support payments.

"We know from experience that when a parent has difficulty making child support payments, the children are affected emotionally as well as financially," Theile said. "An involved parent is more likely to provide both financial and emotional support."

In most cases, a family court enters a support order which parents are expected to follow.

The Friend of the Court becomes involved only when a parent violates the court order and falls behind in payments. Theile said PACT will try to nip potential future problems.

"Usually, courts are reacting to the parent's failure to comply," he said. "Our goal with this project is not to react, but to be proactive, to treat support and parenting issues for the entire family early on," Theile said.

"Early intervention will not only help many of these parents find work, but will also promote positive relationships between parents and children."

Six hundred new Genesee County domestic relations cases will be assigned to the project, half of those involving families where the parents are not married to each other.

A control group of 600 comparable cases will be handled under the court's existing procedures.

When the project ends after 17 months, data on both groups will be studied to see if the early intervention families fared better economically and emotionally than those in the control group.

Theile said PACT is modeled after a similar program started by Judge Kristen Ruth in Raleigh, N.C. He went there last year for a training program to see how their program works and how it could be implemented in Genesee County.

Theile said PACT hopes to address the millions of dollars in unpaid child support in Genesee County.

Although smaller such programs are also being tried in Kent and Grand Traverse counties, "we will have the largest and most intense program," Theile said.

"If this has any degree of success, we could be looking at a national program," he said.

Others share his enthusiasm. "This is a neat program," Witucki said, calling it a "full service" program.

Zerka said the program will hold those parents accountable, but it will be for the best interest of the children and the family.

Theile said Justice Corrigan has been a huge factor in getting additional funding for PACT.

"When it comes to dealing with kids, she is dynamic and intense," he said.

Theile said families selected for PACT under its additional grant funding will appear in court about twice a month to report progress or address problems or to make adjustments to their specific needs. "But we're still in the crawling stage," he said.

In a news release addressing PACT's additional funding, Justice Corrigan said the loss of a parent's job can be devastating for a family, even in the best of economic times.

"This is particularly true when the unemployed parent does not live with the children, but has been supporting them by making court-ordered child support payments to the other parent," she said.

"The job loss, coupled with the loss of child support, strains an already-fragile relationship between the parents."

Justice Corrigan said when the non-custodial parent has difficulty paying child support, that person can become frustrated and withdraw further from their child.

She said the result is that "the children suffer emotionally," and the parents ability to cooperate in raising their kids suffers.

She hopes the expanded PACT program can address those issues early "rather than intervening only after the situation has already begun to deteriorate."

Theile said he sees PACT as a program aimed at eliminating problems and creating solutions, but admitted "there will be hits, and misses" in the pilot program.

Stephen said the 17-month life of PACT "is a short-term project to demonstrate success." But she said PACT will solve problems through "a collective effort."

Corrigan, a Michigan Supreme Court justice since 1999 who has won awards in the legal field as well as in her work with children's issues, said at the unveiling of the program that PACT will "help our neighbors get on their feet and help their kids.

"I hope that (PACT) becomes a model for the country," Justice Corrigan said.

Published: Thu, Dec 31, 2009

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