Collective grief

After receiving a court order for child support in 1990, Lena Williams was counting on the money her ex-boyfriend, Johnnie Neal, had been told to pay. Though it was only $210 a month, the money would have been helpful, especially three years ago when her son Jason needed surgery to have pins placed in one of his hips.

But instead of the support to which she was entitled, Williams banked only frustration, becoming one of the thousands of mothers in Texas unable to collect her due. For five years she sought help from the state Attorney General's Office and got nothing in return.

Finally, Williams turned to Child Support Enforcement, one of the increasing number of private companies which have sprung up to help parents--mostly mothers--collect the back child support due them. Chasing profits in the anguish of single parents, companies like CSE promise to hunt down errant parents and get the cash, in exchange for a hefty cut.

CSE, based in Austin, charges a $375 administrative fee and takes a 33 percent slice of any money it collects. Nothing else had worked, so Williams signed a contract with CSE in September 1995, hoping the company would chase down at least some of the money owed by Neal.

Instead of enjoying a respite from red tape and frustration, however, Williams says she found herself involved in another bureaucratic mess as the company misplaced one of her checks and then tried to attack her character for complaining about it. Williams plans to file a complaint against the company with the Better Business Bureau, and is now fighting to get out of her contract with CSE.

"They lied to me," says Williams, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture management and labor relations department for three years, but is now on disability with carpal tunnel syndrome. "They thought I was a dumb welfare queen. But sometimes you dumb yourself down to find out more about people. And I found out how they really are. They prey on people."

For its part, CSE says that the whole thing was an innocent mistake, and that Williams was sent her missing check as soon as it was found. Richard Hoffman, owner of CSE, says that he understands Williams' frustration, but insists his company did nothing wrong.

"I don't think we intended to malign her at all," he says. "[We] thought we had done our due diligence."

After she signed up with the company, it took almost a year before Williams began receiving payments. In August 1996, she started getting checks twice a month. After CSE took its cut, the checks to Williams came to about $70 each.

It was better than nothing, especially since her son now requires regular X-rays and physical therapy, expenses which aren't covered by Medicare, Williams says.

The trouble began in November 1996, when Williams did not receive one of her semimonthly checks. When she called CSE to find out what had happened, she says she was told the check had been mailed to her on November 21. It was now December, and the check had never arrived, although others had come in the mail since then. Williams says CSE started to rebuff her frequent phone calls asking about the missing money. "I was pissed," she says.

By January, Williams still had received no explanation for the missing money, so she filed a complaint against CSE with the consumer protection division of the state Attorney General's Office. In the complaint, Williams said she wanted the company to give her the missing money and let her out of her contract.

CSE Vice President Jim Bishop responded with a letter that was news to Williams. Bishop wrote the Attorney General's Office saying that Williams had received the disputed check and deposited it in her bank account. Since Williams did not even have a bank account, she says Bishop's version of events was impossible.

With his letter, Bishop included a copy of what he claimed was the check, with Williams' signature on the back. The CSE executive also accused Williams of hanging up on CSE representatives who were assisting her, tying up their 800 line (rather than using the costly long-distance line), and trying to play the Attorney General's Office against CSE.

"We have letters from her criticizing the Attorney General's Office and praising CSE," Bishop wrote. "Now she is praising your office and criticizing CSE."

"If Ms. Williams would have taken the time to use our client line properly and not terminated calls...perhaps this [problem] could have been avoided," he wrote later.

Williams was flabbergasted and furious. Not only had the company lied about sending her a check, she says, but it had also maligned her character. Williams hasn't had a bank account in two years. All the checks she received from CSE were cashed. She wanted to know where this mythical bank account came from.

Williams began to dig and call in favors from her days spent working for the federal government. She eventually found someone in the child support division of the Attorney General's Office willing to track down the mysterious check. In cases like Williams', the errant spouses actually send their support checks directly to the attorney general's office, which has responsibility under law to collect the owed money.

If a private company like CSE is involved--having actually tracked down the spouse--the Attorney General's Office forwards the money to the company, which takes its fee and then pays its client.

Williams learned that the check number recorded at the Attorney General's Office did not match the number on the check produced by CSE. A copy of the original check was faxed to CSE.

The next day, CSE changed its story. A letter sent to the Attorney General's Office explained that a routine audit had found that a "posting error involving two accounts with both clients having the last name of Williams" caused the mix-up. The company said it had given Williams' money to someone else with the same last name. A new check was mailed to Williams, minus the company's fee.

The only acknowledgement Williams received of the error was a note scrawled in pen on the check stub by Bishop. It said the error was caught in an audit and "the check...was distributed in error to another client with the last name Williams."

Though she finally got her money, Williams is still mad, and she doesn't want CSE to get off easily. This week, she plans to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the first such complaint filed against the company in Dallas County. Williams feels as though CSE labeled her as just another welfare queen and maligned her unjustly. She wants them to take it back.

"I want an apology," she says. "I want a retraction of all the things [Bishop] said. For them to vilify me and to slander me, and this half-hearted apology is supposed to be sufficient? Hell no! I was wounded by this. They had no right to attack me like they did."

Hoffman says Bishop's note wasn't an attack on Williams, but a defense of CSE. He says that he is willing to write her that letter of apology if she wishes.

"I feel bad that we have reached this point," he says.
Williams is also trying to circumvent CSE to obtain her future support payments. She has asked the Attorney General's Office to begin sending the money directly to her, so that CSE will no longer get its 33 percent cut.

Attorney General spokesman Ward Tisdale says that Williams' complaint is one of 20 against CSE. He also says that the office cannot cancel Williams' contract with CSE.

Hoffman says the company is awaiting a ruling from the Attorney General's Office on the missing check case before it decides what to do about the contract. Williams is still legally bound to her contract, he says.

"There is no question that we benefited her," Hoffman says. "She wasn't receiving any child support. We worked very hard for her.


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