Power Court helps parents find jobs, meet responsibilities

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Nine Wayne County men this week will become the first graduates of a program aimed at helping parents meet their child support obligations.

The non-custodial parents each spent at least six months tackling individualized "action plans" designed by the Wayne County Friend of the Court's POWER (Providing Opportunities for Work, Education and Respect) Court.

By helping these non-custodial parents secure education and employment, POWER Court keeps fathers active in their children's lives, explained Wayne County Friend of the Court Zenell B. Brown.

Brown explained that if a parent isn't paying child support, his child typically then goes on public assistance as a primary means of financial support. And if there's no financial support, there's typically no emotional support, either.

"The parent isn't present in that child's life," said Brown. "So it's in the best interest of the child to have somebody who's financial there and emotionally there for them."

POWER Court is a voluntary problem-solving docket of the Third Judicial Circuit Family Court bench. Appropriate candidates are those who may have trouble paying child support because of lack of employment or education. POWER Court gives them resources to address those underlying issues, and to hold them accountable to look for work or improve their education.

Non-custodial parents owe about $9 billion in back child support in the state of Michigan; $5 billion are Wayne County cases, according to Brown. Wayne County is collecting from only about half of parents who owe money, she said.

In some cases, payers -- most often fathers -- take their paychecks "under the table" in order to avoid those automatic withdrawals from Friend of the Court.

"Oftentimes we'll see people cut hair, but not have an actual barber's license, or they'll have a barber's license, but cut hair in their basement," said Brown. "Usually when you have that situation, the best source of information is the other parent. Once you've identified that person as someone who doesn't have a formal job ... you monitor them and have them make payments on their own."

Stephanie Witucki, a Friend of the Court referee who handles child support, noted that while they were in POWER Court for up to 12 months, the men about to graduate were taught how to find a job, fill out a résumé, enroll in a GED program, etc.

"There are a lot of resources out there that people are not taking advantage of simply because they don't know about them," said Witucki. "In this program, we're constantly trying to expand people's options in terms of job training or GED."

Brown said Friend of the Court looks at individual cases to consider whether the payer's child support obligation is realistic in light of the person's current circumstances.

"We'll do modifications when appropriate," she said.

The men enrolled in POWER Court contributed a collective $10,000 in "good faith payment obligations" to their children's support over the last year.

"It's not a significant amount of money," said Brown, "but it is people who are understanding that Friend of the Court is not out here to be oppressive or to say everybody's a deadbeat dad, but to actually assure they have the resources to get to work and to make the child support payments which are so important. So we're very proud of them."

The graduation will be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, July 14 in Courtroom 1519 at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, 2 Woodward Avenue.

Published: Wed, Jul 13, 2011