By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Like McDaniel's ex-husband, 29-year-old Dallas resident Joshua Maydon's wages are garnisheed and sent to the OAG, which in turn forwards his payments to the mother of his young daughter 500 miles away in Harlingen, Texas. Yet he says his ex-girlfriend calls him regularly, complaining that she doesn't receive her child support on time.
"It's always erratic when it shows up," he says. "How come they can't set up a payment schedule like clockwork that gives it to her automatically on the day that she's supposed to have it?"
Maydon claims he's had to take several days off work for unplanned trips down to Harlingen to resolve issues because the OAG continues to botch the processing of his payments.
"It's like you almost have to baby-sit another kid because it seems like they don't understand what you're trying to accomplish," he says. "I'm trying to pay on time and trying to get money to my daughter."
While he admits that the benefit of the OAG is that its service is provided at no charge to him, he says paying a fee for services similar to O'Donnell's would be appealing if it ensured his payments arrived on time. "My main concern is that my daughter has her stuff and that they're not waiting for money to pay their rent," he says.
That's not to suggest that GAL didn't have its own problems.
Darlene Ewing, a Dallas family lawyer for more than 30 years, says O'Donnell's payment records were difficult to read, and his policy was to apply payments toward outstanding GAL fees and attorney's fees first before paying off overdue child support to the custodial parent. "The guardian program always took their fees off the top, and I didn't like that," she says.
"Well, you cannot prosecute someone for free," O'Donnell counters.
Ewing also claims that rather than bringing non-paying parents before the judge who could throw them in jail for violating the court's support order, GAL would often strike side deals, allowing them to return to court again and again. "It was a better operation than the attorney general, but it had no teeth," she says. "There was nothing hanging over their heads."
Jeff Coen, while serving as an associate family court judge in Dallas from 1994 to 2002, dealt with some of the program's shortcomings. He claims judges often struggled to make sense of O'Donnell's computer printouts; rumors circulated that O'Donnell had office space rent-free at the Dallas County courthouse; O'Donnell couldn't back up his high collection rates with supporting data; and GAL had no clear policy regarding how it handled unclaimed child support money—payments from an unidentified parent or for a parent who couldn't be located.
O'Donnell, with his characteristic brashness, says such accusations are utter nonsense: He never heard from judges saying they couldn't read his printouts; the rooms he used at the courthouse were ones set aside for attorneys; any unclaimed money was sent back to where it came from; and his collection rates were always supported by accompanying data. That's what enabled him to grow his business, because when he started, child support collection rates were absolutely abysmal.
Then-Judge Bob O'Donnell recalls getting a phone call in 1985 from John Roach in response to a paper he wrote for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare chronicling Dallas County's appalling 17 percent child support collection rate. Roach, then a district court judge in Collin County and now the county's district attorney, wanted to run for Texas Attorney General in the 1986 Republican primary and hoped to tout what he thought was his own court's high collection rate. But after O'Donnell performed a statistical analysis for him, "He was dismayed when he found out what the hell that was," O'Donnell says.
It was somewhere between 20 and 25 percent, Roach recollects, even though he had spent a lot of court time handling contempt motions to enforce child support. After finishing third in the Republican primary, Roach enlisted Judge O'Donnell's help to increase the collection rates in his court. "It just seemed to me that there had to be a better way to get this thing to work," he says.
Through his research, O'Donnell had discovered Michigan's "friend of the court" law. Established in 1919 and still used today, the law was created to appoint individuals to protect children, including the enforcement of any payments awarded to them in court. O'Donnell essentially copied this model by creating GAL, which would serve as an officer of the court.
In the meantime, his son had been finalizing the development of software aimed at revolutionizing child support collection. A computer geek and student at the University of Texas at Dallas, Robert knew the value of such technology from his father's experience as a family court judge. It would be the first computerized system in the nation, and he tried to sell it across the country, but surprisingly, there were no takers. States expressing interest such as Colorado and Tennessee said he needed to prove his software worked. Roach's court became the testing ground.
"Once the program got going, we were collecting 80 or 85 percent of our child support cases," Roach says of implementing GAL in 1987 after a six-month pilot program. "So it not only saved the court work, we collected more money for the people who were deserving of it."