Kent County offers amnesty to parents behind on child support

Program aims to help 3,500 Kent County residents


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County is offering a break to some 3,500 residents who have fallen behind on child support payments over the last year and found themselves the subject of a bench warrant.

The county is teaming up with a Grand Rapids church to offer an amnesty day next month so people can work to resolve their unpaid child support without going to jail and have a chance to keep history from repeating itself.

DEPUTIES WORK TO COLLECT CHILD SUPPORT

Kent County has two deputies now dedicated to Friend of the Court enforcement, looking to collect the millions of dollars in outstanding child support.

“Our goal is for every child to have a good relationship with both parents, both economically and emotionally,” Friend of the Court Director Dan Fojtik said.

Fojtik says the last thing the court wants to do is put people in jail because that does not help get the money. But after numerous attempts to communicate without success, a warrant is the next option.

The two deputies filling the new role will be a combination of law enforcement and social worker, Kent County Undersheriff Michelle Young explained Both are former community resource and school liaison officers. Young said the plan is to use the officers to reach out to those who are behind to see what can be done short of arrest.

She says she hopes people will take care of their arrearages (child support debt) before being arrested on a bench warrant.

“You’re with a carload full of kids on the way to the grocery store, and all of a sudden you get pulled over because your taillight’s out. That’s not the right time to have to deal with a Friend of the Court warrant,” Young said.

The deputies will cover 800 square miles containing some 650,000 people. There will be no targeting.

Kent County Family Court Judge Kathleen Feeney emphasized that the two deputies will not be a “goon squad” and the positions are a continuation of a program that was in place five years ago but was canceled.

AMNESTY EVENT AIMED AT AVOIDING JAIL TIME

But the use of officers for child support collection is not welcomed by Lifequest Urban Outreach Center Pastor Jerry Bishop.

“There’s a significantly better way to compassionately collect versus having two armed deputies dispatched to people’s homes,” Bishop said. “The risk for negative confrontation escalates the moment they show up.”

Bishop fears that much of that enforcement will concentrate on minority communities and will fail to take into account the ingrained barriers that community may have with making payments.

“We’re trying to minimize any contact that could be potentially unfriendly contact, anxiety-ridden contact with law enforcement,” Bishop said.

He says Kent County has been one of the most effective counties in the state in collections for the Friend of the Court.

He also said he doesn’t think there is a clear understanding of the criteria for when someone is arrested or not.

“If they don’t work with us on this, we can’t help them and we really do want to help people out,” Fojtik said.

So the county and Lifequest are working together to hold an amnesty day on Aug. 12 at the southeast side church. There, people can work out plans to settle their arrearages without fear of arrest. There will also be resources available to help find jobs and deal with problems like substance abuse or mental health.

The Friend of the Court plans to do more outreach of this kind outside of the courthouse to help connect parents to the services they need in order to make payments to their kids. Juan Rosiario, a case manager who oversees community outreach for the Friend of the Court, says the department will be going out into the community to communicate with those behind on their payments instead of dragging them downtown.

“Maybe coming through the deputies here and having to go through security and all that stuff, can be a little bit intimidating and we’re trying to ease that by going out to them,” Rosiario said.

Pastor Bishop says he will keep an eye on how the program is administered to make sure the minority community is not unfairly targeted.

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