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Placer County child support department opens up about challenges, successes

By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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The Placer County Department of Child Support pulled back the curtains to its operation this week in hopes of combating stereotypes, misconceptions and rumors it says are circulating about the nature of its mission.

The department is currently handling more than 9,000 child support cases between Roseville, Rocklin, Lincoln, Auburn and other parts of the county. Program manager Susan Dunlap said that in the last fiscal year alone child support workers had collected $20 million in money owed to local families.

“It’s about providing family support services,” Dunlap said. “We used to be under the wing of the county District Attorney’s Office, and even though we aren’t any more, there is a widespread view of us as being a wing of law enforcement. That idea has made some parents hesitant to work with us.”

In an effort to set the record straight, the department opened the doors to its Rocklin office Tuesday afternoon for parents and non-parents alike. Members of the public learned the child support department is involved in a host of tasks, including establishing paternity, tracking down parents, enforcing child support and enforcing medical orders. The most common question members of the public had was about how the department collects child support when one of the parents is unwilling to pay it.

“We have a myriad of tools that the state provides us with,” Dunlap told The Press Tribune. “We can issue income-withholding orders, put back levies on wages, engage in credit reporting, do tax return interceptions and put liens on personal property, workers compensation settlements and casino and lottery winnings.”

The department can also legally suspend any professional license — be it a contractor’s license or a doctor’s license — over child support that’s owed.

Employees from the department told the audience Tuesday that freezing international passports has also been a surprisingly effective way of collecting back-owed child support.

“You’d be surprised how quickly people can find money when they really want to take a trip,” said department supervisor Kristen Mindus. “We had someone recently who paid $27,000 all at once in back child support because he wanted to get his passport reactivated for a trip.”

When paternity for a child is in question, the department provides a buccal swab DNA test at no cost to either parent. If a father is denying paternity, and also refuses to cooperate with the genetic test, then department officials can issue a court complaint that often leads to that father being legally established as the parent by default.

“People in that situation can still come back and contest the paternity at any point by cooperating with the genetic test,” Dunlap said.

Case managers at the department of child support can also find themselves in the position of geographic sleuths, locating parents who are difficult to find. Credit reports are the most common method for finding someone, though the case managers also have access to all state-wide databases and some federal databases. It’s not uncommon for DMV records, IRS filings or data from the Employment Development Department to also come into play.   

Participants in Tuesday’s open house asked several questions about what the department can do when a parent who’s unwilling to pay child support transfers property or paychecks to a new spouse’s name.

“We cannot take into consideration any of the other spouse’s income,” Mindus said. “If a house or car is in some else’s name, we can’t go after it. But if it’s a situation where an employer is writing checks to a spouse instead, the employer can’t legally do that.”

Glen Harnish, a Placer County attorney who works for the department of child support, also commented on attempts at deception.

“There’s not always an answer for that kind of thing, but we examine cases very carefully,” Harnish said. “Our court commissioner is really good at getting to the facts.”

Mindus, Dunlap and Harnish agree that parents working “under the table” or for straight cash remains the biggest challenge in collecting child support.

“We’ve had some cases that have gone on for years,” Dunlap said, “and we haven’t been able to draw child support funds until the person starts collecting disability or social security.

When the group conversation turned to oddities, employees noted that the department had seen a few cases where a parent tried to claim a pet as a dependent child in order to lessen the amount of child support due to his or her real child.

Dunlap believes the overall picture for getting parents to cooperate on child support issues has greatly improved in Placer County in the last five years. She contends that getting away from using terms like “deadbeat dad,” which she says complicated the department’s job with highly emotional rhetoric, has created a situation where more men are open-minded about working with her case managers.

“It’s not about calling people ‘deadbeat dads,’” Dunlap said. “It’s about working with families to find solutions to what they’re dealing with.”