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If you go up to Courtroom 560 in the new Bucks County Courthouse any Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday mornings at 10 A.M., you can watch the open-to-the- public contempt hearings for parents who have fallen behind in support. Ninety five percent of these defendants are male, fitting the stereotype of “deadbeat dads.”
Five to ten of these men are sporting fresh bright orange jumpsuits and whitish grey flip-flops, courtesy of Bucks County Prison. These guys are marched in, all handcuffed together in a line. Some guys look scruffy and unkempt. Some guys have so many tattoos, that you cannot see their skin color. Some guys look like “normal guys,” who are just plain embarrassed to be paraded in public. Most of these men have been arrested by the Bucks County Sherriff’s Office Warrant Squad the day before as fugitives on bench warrants for blowing off previously scheduled support hearings. The sheriffs caught them sleeping in their cars, hiding under their rich girlfriend’s bed, sunning by the pool at their mother’s home, or working at their under-the-table job. These fugitives have just spent overnight at the prison, savored correctional cuisine, enjoyed an early morning wake-up head-count and had the pleasure of a full-body cavity search (looking for contraband, weapons, drugs, etc.) Occasionally some drugs will be found where the sun don’t shine, but, not surprisingly, there never seems to be any money hiding up there to pay for back child support.
The rest of the support contempt defendants have voluntarily come to court after being summoned. They all appear to be a cross-section of Bucks County masculinity, with an occasional “dead beat mom” thrown in. Most of the defendants are “frequent fliers,” with large amounts of support owed in arrears. It would not be unusual to find a guy owing middle to high five figures after years of delinquency. Unless a defendant brings his own lawyer (very rare), the 20 or 30 support contempt defendants are all represented by the same free over-worked public defender. The constitution requires that they all get free legal assistance because the result of their contempt hearing could be up to six months in prison.
Before Court begins, stalwart officers from the Bucks County Domestic Relations office attempt to work out an agreement between contempt defendant and the woman to whom the money is owed. Typically the woman owed money is calling in by phone, because she cannot afford to take off work every month or so, to “chase after” the money owed to her. In over half the cases, an agreement is reached, with the defendant paying some money on the spot and then promising to stick to an accelerated payment schedule (and I have some swamp land to sell you in Feasterville).
Later that morning, the guys who haven’t settled up get to face the judge. Sheriffs, with handcuffs at the ready, stand behind the defendants ready to spring into action if the judge orders incarceration. The judge begins by reading the defendant’s (usually) sorry history of prior contempts, incarcerations, non-payments, broken promises, lost jobs, and the thousands of dollars in arrearages. The defendant then gives some or all if the usual excuses for not paying:
1. “I can’t find work. I went on two whole job interviews last month!”
2. “I’m disabled due to__________ (Fill in the blank: back problems, arthritis, heart problems, dizzy spells, and everyone’s favorite, “fibroneurolgia”[that’s how they pronounce it].
3. “I got personal problems.” (Usually the Croydon version of “Days of Our Lives”)
4. “I got a sick __________ and I’m the only human available to care of them. (Fill in the blank: mother, father, great grandmother, dog, cat, salamander).
5. “I can’t get work because of the bad economy.” (If we believe the defendants, the economy has been bad since 1865)
6. “My job is seasonal and it’s the wrong season.” (In almost thirty years in support court, I have yet to learn what the “right ” season is.
7. “I’m getting off drugs.” “I just went back on drugs.” “I have to focus on my drug recovery. If I work, I might fall off the wagon. (I’m too busy attending A.A or N.A. to work). “Some of these guys may actually have thriving illegal drug business, but even if they were caught red handed with thousands of dollars of drug money in their pockets, that dirty money cannot be used as income for calculating support because only legally-obtained income counts in fixing a monthly support payment.
8. “I lost my driver’s license. “”My car is broken.” “It was repossessed the very morning I was to start my new job.”” My girlfriend stole my car.”” My girlfriend slashed my tires.” etc.
9. “I have to stay home to take care of the children of my other three baby mamas”
10. “I can’t get a job because of my criminal record.”
11. “I have mental health issues. I’m too ________ work.” (Fill in the blank: anxious, depressed, bi-polar, metabolically unstable, phobic, verklempt [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/verklempt]).
12. “I finally had the money to pay support, but I got robbed on the way to ________. (Fill in the blank: court, the mailbox, the bank, Synagogue, etc.)
13. “Please don’t put me in jail. I start a new job ________.” (Fill in the blank: next Thursday, after the holidays, as soon as the weather clears, once I can pass a drug test, when I get my driver’s license back, etc.)
14. “She won’t let me see my kids, so why should I have to pay?”(This is not a legal excuse.)
15. “Whenever I do give her money she wastes it on _________.” (Fill in the blank with one or more of these: her boyfriend, drugs, her mother, Parx Casino, partying with her homegirls, hoochie mama outfits, etc. (This is also not a legal excuse.)
The most skillful of the defendants can come up with excuses that include at least five of the above categories. I have seen one guy include as many as eight. There is a whispered legend around the Courthouse (unproven) that one guy managed to use all fifteen excuses in one ten-minute hearing. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible, but, wow, to be able to tell your grandchildren that you were present in court to see that!
In the courtroom audience to watch these “excuse performances,” are a number of veteran mothers of support hearings, court staff, law enforcement, support personnel, and other attorneys waiting to try their cases. Like the figure skating judges in the Olympics, the audience members glance at each other, comparing judgments on the excuse performance. The only thing missing is holding up the scores after the performance is over, but instead of points, deadbeat excuse skills can be measured in the number of eye rolls and smirks from the onlookers.
In the middle of all this theater is the judge assigned to support court on that day. He (all of our full-time Bucks County Family Court judges are men) must be fair. Our judges do a fantastic job trying to separate fact from fiction. Because there are maybe 50 support cases of all types on the docket every morning, each defendant only gets about 5-10 minutes to plead his case. Quick justice must be rendered. A judge may not be vengeful. Before punishment is given, a judge has to believe that a defendant really had the ability to (work and) pay support, but chose not to, You cannot punish someone for being poor, or genuinely disabled, or recently laid off.
First-time-contempt-fathers are rarely put in jail. They are given payment plans, job application goals, and work deadlines. Second time contempt Fathers are usually given sterner warnings, stricter job goals, and a shorter leash as to when they have to report back to the judge. These guys will be clearly warned of jail. Often, the third contempt is the charm. The judge will sentence these repeat offenders for up to six months in prison. They will be handcuffed on the spot and led to a holding cell to await prison transport.
But even though the judge can impose a maximum sentence of six months, the deadbeat dad always holds the key to his own cell. Every imprisoned contempt offender must be given a “purge amount” which can spring him immediately. Whether the amount is $500 or $5,000, the now-handcuffed Father will always cry, “I can’t raise that amount,” as he led away. But, after their one allowed phone call, most guys have the money paid for them before 5:00 P.M., thus missing their sumptuous prison dinner.
The biggest purge amount we ever obtained, representing a mother with three kids at Christmas, was a $10,000 purge or sixty days in jail. The defendant literally cried to the judge he could never raise that money and it would “kill him” to spend the holidays in jail. Of course, his new girlfriend paid it all in cash by the end of that day. Our client had a good Christmas. The defendant probably had to spend the rest of the money he didn’t have for his girlfriend’s present.
At WE CARE LEGAL SERVICES, 1-855-LAW-FAMILY; we take our clients’ support issues very seriously. Our attorneys have literally thousands of child support, spousal support, and alimony cases under their belts. We have the resources to get to the truth and the dedication to create a positive result. Please consider us if you are feeling frustrated with your past support results.