Tough economy increases caseload at family courtby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
As unemployment rises, family courts are feeling the pain. More parents are seeking changes in their child support payments. That's leading to a higher volume of cases just as the state grapples with a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.
Hennepin County, the state's most populous county, is feeling the strain.
Minneapolis — At the Family Justice Center in downtown Minneapolis, so many people have trekked into the legal self-help center they have worn the carpet right off the floors. They are bare gray concrete now. The carpet is back-ordered. It's kind of how the whole place feels: too busy to notice.
Alex of Brooklyn Center, who also asked that his last name not be used to protect his family's privacy, is waiting here to meet with a volunteer lawyer.
"It's almost practically impossible for me to pay the amount, about $700 a month," Alex said. "[It's] not that I'm not willing to pay, if I'm making the money I can pay, but I don't make that much."
Alex needs to support his 2-year-old daughter, but his hours as a nursing assistant at an assisted living center have been cut. And he can't make extra money like he used to working overtime.
"You have to make sure you don't go into overtime because you get punished for that," he said. "This time I don't want to lose my job."
Plenty of people have lost their jobs. Hennepin county child support enforcement says the number of child support payments coming out of unemployment checks has doubled since this time last year.
So many people are requesting help changing their child support payments that the county now offers free clinics, three mornings a week to walk parents through the paperwork. This morning, ten dads show up. On recent mornings, as many as 25 have shown up, according to Virginia Kuberski, the lawyer who runs these clinics.
Kuberski tries to make it a little fun by filling out her sample paperwork with the names of Fred and Willma Flintsone and their daughter, Pebbles. But it's pretty grim stuff.
Sitting in the back of the room is the kind of case that's become more typical, a first-timer. A professional who's lost his job.
David, of Minneapolis, who also doesn't want his last name used, lost his job in advertising.
"I was laid off a couple months ago and I'm at the end of my severance," David said. "I haven't found a job so I'm trying to modify the monthly support. I don't want to, but I have to."
David can't afford the $1,000 he has been paying his ex-wife in child support and his $800 share of the child care expenses for their two young children each month. He knows his ex-wife isn't in great financial shape either.
"Believe me, I'd rather be working," he said. "I would give anything not to be here right now."
If David and his ex-wife can agree on the reduced child support, and they can get the signing judge on duty to approve it, David will get immediate relief. If they don't agree and it has to go to a court hearing, it could take two months to get on the schedule.
Tanja Manrique, the presiding judge of the 4th District Family Court, calls the tough economy "a perfect storm" for family court. Filings are up for all kinds of business the court routinely deals with: child support, paternity and orders for protection for domestic abuse.
"The face of filings is changing, the complexity is changing, the cases are getting harder to settle because there's just not enough money to go around," Manrique said.
Manrique is getting far more people in her courtroom who have not been back since their divorces were settled years ago. She said it's disconcerting to them to be told to wait several months when they're in the midst of a financial crisis.
The 4th District's chief judge, James Swenson, said the options are bleak; longer wait times, or judges work more hours, or they spend less time on cases. He is concerned about burnout.
"The caseload in Hennepin County is going through the roof," Swenson said. "If it doesn't begin to abate, we're going to have to look at reallocating resources more towards family court, which means we'd have to take resources away from someplace else. And with 9,400 cases per judicial officer, there's not any room so we're up between a rock and a hard place.
And between a rock and a hard place is where these families find themselves as well.
- Morning Edition, 05/18/2009, 8:40 a.m.