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Child support on docket PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Moni Basu   
Hit by downturn, some parents tell courts that the obligations they once willingly shouldered are now unbearable. Kids are caught in the middle.

Norval Rhodes wants to do right by his 8-month-old son. He wants reliable day care, adequate health care and proper nutrition.

When he separated from his wife last year, Rhodes agreed to pay $797 a month in child support. But in these lean times, that amount is no longer tenable for the personal trainer from Dunwoody, after clients dropped precipitously. Many of those clients are struggling small-business owners forced to cut back on services that suddenly seem like luxuries.

“It’s been extremely difficult,” said Rhodes, 26, who would like to cut his child- support obligation almost in half.

Economically challenged, thousands of Americans are facing the same predicament. Taking home a lesser salary or out of work altogether, parents can no longer afford to pay child support settled upon in more prosperous times.

Judges and counselors fear that children are the most vulnerable in a recession, invisible perhaps in the number crunching but susceptible to long-term effects of empty pocketbooks that will surely and steadily surface as the months wear on.

All sorts of stressful scenarios stem from unusually hard times.

Family court judges in Fulton County said they are seeing more cases of parents violating court-ordered child support. And more middle-class moms and dads are showing up in court —- people of good faith who have run out of financial options.

Family lawyer Eric Shapiro said he has seen a surge in the number of clients who wish to modify child-support obligations.

“When you’re already at the margins with child support, even a 25 percent loss of income can be devastating,” said Shapiro, who is representing Rhodes.

Some divorced parents are forced to look for employment in localities far from their children. Others are swallowing their emotions and staying together in bad relationships because they can’t sell the family home or have decimated retirement accounts.

“Those are two things of contention in a divorce,” Shapiro said. “By and large, they don’t exist anymore.”

Counselor Mary Hammons sees firsthand the impact on children.

Her nonprofit agency, Families First, which runs state-certified domestic violence intervention programs, added classes for those who have been ordered by the courts to attend.

Monday through Thursday, Families First offers 18 sessions. All are full. And it’s just one of 100 agencies in Georgia with such programs.

Just last week, a recently divorced couple were taken to the hospital after a shooting and fire erupted in their Lawrenceville house. Investigators suspect a turbulent relationship —- the ex-husband was still living in the couple’s home —- was to blame for the violence.

Many parents are reluctant to talk about their domestic problems. But Hammons said conversations in her classes often begin like this: “My wife and I argue all the time about money.”

Hammons recently met a man who moved to Houston for a construction job. He now has to find the time and money to visit his children in Atlanta.

“That is becoming more and more common —- men working out of town. Mom’s left here to deal with everything. Then Dad comes back and grumbles about where all the money has gone,” Hammons said.

It’s a recipe for family disaster.

One man told Hammons, a 25-year counselor, that she needed to focus not on anger management but on employment. So she started handing out job tips and referring her clients to Web sites such as consumer advocate Clark Howard’s.

“We’re definitely spending more time in our classes discussing these issues,” she said.

Hammons hears more, too, about developmental obstacles. It’s harder to discipline kids or get them to clean up their rooms. Siblings fight with each other because they see their parents fighting. Academic performance plummets at school.

Hammons thinks an increasing number of men and women in her classes have exhausted hope or lost trust in their former spouse or partner. She hears more of them threatening suicide.

“Parents are so overwhelmed trying to make ends meet,” Hammons said.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane said children are privy these days to a family’s financial woes and are forced to take sides in a parental argument, a definite no-no in divorce protocol.

Mom might say: If Dad would pay on time, you could go to summer camp. Dad might lash back: You can’t go to the college of your choice anymore because Mom lost her job.

Some of the most difficult cases for the judges, however, involve relocation.

Another Superior Court judge, Gail Tusan, heard the pleas of an artist who wanted to move to New York City, where she felt her income prospects were stronger.

“You have to make a decision based on what’s best for the child,” Tusan said, even if it means considering custody, visitation schedules and costs of accessing the child.

In the end, Tusan decided the child should remain in Atlanta, almost 1,000 miles from Mom.

Other people want to save money by moving closer to relatives who can provide child care.

Judges often interview children before handing down child-support decisions. What do you do, some said, when a child looks at you and says: “Mom’s really trying.”

“That pulls at our heartstrings,” Tusan said.

Superior Court Judge Cynthia Wright said she is losing sleep over decisions that have no easy answers.

“I wish I could wave a wand and solve all the problems,” she said. “I wish I could make assets reappear.”

Rhodes, the Dunwoody personal trainer, has hopes that his 50 percent loss in income will correct itself one day soon. But for the moment, he counts every penny.

He allows himself to get behind on certain bills —- utilities, for instance, which allow a grace period before cutoff. He reduced his cable subscription and learned to make basic meals to avoid buying more expensive prepared foods.

But he almost always ends up in the negative column at the end of the month.

“I want to provide the best environment for my son,” Rhodes said. “I just can’t afford it.”


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