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Deadbeating the System

 

So what if he had been served with papers, ordered to appear in court or risk getting thrown in jail. No way Kim Sullivan was getting her hopes up until she saw him walking through those courtroom doors--not with the Texas attorney general trying to squeeze more than $40,000 in unpaid child support out of her ex-husband, not with his track record of dodging his obligations.

The way she tells it, Jimmy Joe Heimann had been a "no show" their entire married life. When she was pregnant with Amy, he split after the delivery, too busy shooting up cocaine to pick them up from Baylor Hospital. When he would leave for work on Friday, she often wouldn't see him until Monday; he was off on some weekend binge with the boys, too fucked-up to phone. He didn't even show up for court when they divorced; seven years of marriage, and he couldn't make a seven-minute hearing. But the worst thing was how he treated their two girls; they would plan fun outings together, then the hour for visitation would arrive and he wouldn't.

Sullivan can catalog all his reasons for not paying: that he was sick, lost his job, that being an air-conditioning repairman is seasonal work, that he was doing his best. Her soft blue eyes redden with tears as she continues: "Jimmy does love his kids. He just hates his responsibilities. He plays like they don't exist."

Sullivan has done her damnedest to remind him: For the last eight years, she has pursued him through the Texas Attorney General's Child Support Division, which was what brought her to court in June. She had been here before, sitting for hours among the masses huddled on the seventh floor of the George Allen Courthouse. Waiting for her ex to show up. Waiting for the attorney general to lean on him hard enough to make him pay. Waiting for someone to explain why her presence in court wasn't just an empty exercise that would result only in her missing another day's work. With the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) handling more than a million cases as the state's designated child-support enforcement agency, explanations were as hard to come by as cash money. Although any Texas resident can apply for services, more than 70 percent of the attorney general's child-support caseload is composed of current or former welfare recipients. Faced with the daunting task of establishing both paternity and child-support orders in more than 90 percent of its cases, the agency must then enforce these orders against delinquent parents, who are often impoverished themselves.

Outside the "IV-D" courts (special masters who hear only OAG child-support cases), the hard oak benches were packed with people, most of them poor, many of them clueless. It didn't help that an assistant attorney general told them he represents the state of Texas, not them. Considered customers rather than clients, they have but a small right to information and no confidential relationship with state lawyers. One woman argued with an attorney who was representing her ex-husband: "Why can't he just be a man and live up to his responsibilities? He says he's got heart problems. Only thing wrong with his heart is he doesn't have one."

Inside the courtroom, Judge Andrew Leonie did his best to tame his docket, culling those cases--about 25 percent--that must be reset because the non-custodial parent (mostly dads) failed to get summoned or appear. A two- to three-month continuance is nothing unusual, the bulky thickness of many files correlating directly to their age. The judge informed one dad that he was behind on his support, but that if he came back with 10 percent of what he owed, he would likely receive probation, giving him time to pay off the balance and avoid jail. The assistant attorney general, a tall, burly man, must think fast on his feet, familiarizing himself with each case as he goes along. No way can he have personal knowledge of each of the 6,000 files in his caseload. This is the high-volume practice of law. Those who need time for preparation need not apply.

Former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox plunged his office into the child-support business in 1983, and it has been mired in controversy ever since. Child advocacy groups such as the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES) sued Mattox for mismanagement, claiming the child-support division was so abysmally inefficient that a million Texas children were being deprived of money they desperately needed. By 1999, complaints against his successor Dan Morales had become so rancorous that the Texas Legislature put the OAG on a two-year probation, demanding the division improve its shoddy performance or risk becoming its own separate agency.

In the last two and a half years, however, under the stewardship of Attorney General John Cornyn, the division has begun to turn things around. Solid management, an emphasis on customer service and the automation of a computer system that had been a virtual albatross for his predecessors enabled collections to reach a record-breaking $1.2 billion in the fiscal year ending August 31, 2001--a 63 percent increase since 1998, the last complete fiscal year of the Morales administration. As Cornyn now seeks the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, (and Morales runs as a Democrat) he will likely tout his child-support record as one of the crowning achievements of his administration.

 

There are still those seeking support for their children who can find no justice in the system, spending years goading the OAG to chase parents who have grown adept at evading enforcement. After all, with the "Title IV-D" program--named for a chapter in federal law--always running on overwhelm, its resources limited and its caseload adding 15,000 new files a month, many deadbeat parents are willing to chance beating the system. As a result, many custodial parents must face staggering delays and callous indifference from a bureaucracy that at times ends up victimizing the same people it purports to champion.

At 12:30 p.m., four hours after she arrived in court, Kim Sullivan's case was called to trial. The motion to revoke her ex-husband's probation was before the judge--only Heimann wasn't. Judge Leonie calmly turned to Sullivan and quizzed her about her ex-husband's whereabouts. "Is he here today?"

"No, sir," she timidly responded.

"Do you think he's going to show up?"

"No, sir."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

"Fourteen months ago, sir, when you put him on probation."

"The state is asking me to issue a capias [warrant] for his arrest. Do you think that's in the best interests of your children?"

She paused for a beat, thinking about the hell he had put her through, about the remote possibility this was going to make a difference.

"Yes, sir, I do."


Maybe if he hadn't been so altogether charming when they met, Kim Sullivan wouldn't have fallen so hard. But Jimmy Heimann was such an "easygoing, well-mannered good ol' boy," how was she to guess that he was addicted to cocaine? Looking back on it now, she says she should have gleaned more from the fact that she was "Wife Number 3" and paid child support for "Wife Number 2" out of her own paycheck. It wasn't as though Heimann was unemployed. He made good money as an air-conditioning technician--maybe too good.

Her first inkling that something was wrong, she says, came when his wallet kept getting stolen every payday. "Or else he lost his check, his boss didn't pay him, his timesheet didn't get turned in. It was always something." When she finally confronted him, he confessed to a $300-a-day habit.

"I was into needles and cocaine," he candidly admits today. "But I will never go back to it. The month after my daughter Amy was born [in 1984], I took myself down to the rehab center and got rehabilitated."

Sullivan claims that's not entirely true. For nine months, Heimann attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings and stayed straight, but then he started smoking pot, and the harder drugs soon followed. "He would take money out of my billfold for formula and diapers, and I wouldn't see him for several days," she says. "I was working two jobs, and I was pregnant with Melinda. I threatened to leave him if he didn't take care of the problem."

Several times he would go to his mother's house in East Texas, clean up, dry out, promise to stay sober. But then he would get around his old friends at work and relapse, and Sullivan would threaten to leave him again. Heimann figured he could break the cycle by pursuing his dream of becoming a long-distance truck driver, says Sullivan, but she was against it. "We needed to be together as a family, and he hated being alone." Nevertheless, in 1988 Heimann attended trucking school and then joined a Waxahachie trucking firm and hit the road.

Turned out he wasn't alone after all. A neighbor saw Heimann with another woman whom he had met at Cowboys on Gaston Avenue. Heimann still denies he was unfaithful ("I didn't run around on Kim until after I was out of the house."), but his long-distance phone bill told a different story.

"I stuck with him through the drugs," Sullivan says. "It was the other woman I had a problem with."

They separated in 1989 and divorced a year later, when the court ordered him to pay $400 a month for the support of his two girls. By the end of 1992, he had a new family and was paying his old one only about a third of what he owed. With the help of her parents, Sullivan made certain her kids never went without. They might have worn thrift-store clothes, but they never went hungry and always had Christmas--even if that meant she had to work two jobs and clean houses during the summer months.

 

Although the law makes child support and visitation separate obligations, Heimann says he felt justified in not paying all his support partly because he was being denied access to his girls. "I love my daughters to death," he says. "But every time I get an opportunity to get them, Kim spoils it somehow."

Sullivan claims that any visitation problems Heimann encountered were of his own making. She would pack her daughters' bags for the weekend, and he would phone to say he was on his way. "They would wait for hours," she says. "Only he didn't show up." Sometimes he would disappear for months, then just as suddenly involve himself in their lives again, apologizing for being a bad father, saying he would do better. At first the girls blamed themselves, but as they grew older, it became easier somehow to love their daddy from a distance.

In the fall of 1993, with Heimann $10,000 behind on his child support, Sullivan became fed up. Her former attorney told her about a child-support advocacy group in Dallas named ACES, and she attended a meeting where she learned that the Texas attorney general would sue her ex-husband for unpaid support, at no cost to her. ACES claimed, however, that since Attorney General Jim Mattox had taken over enforcement in 1983, the division had done little actual enforcing.

Before Mattox's involvement, the situation was even worse. In 1975, Congress mandated that each state set up its own child-support enforcement agency under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. The Texas Department of Human Services had first crack at the program, with disastrous results. "There were very few cases being worked," Mattox says. "I brought the thing into the attorney general's office realizing that no matter how badly I performed, it would be an improvement. We transformed it from a social welfare program into a law-enforcement program with the prestige of the attorney general's office to back it up."

That prestige wasn't enough to prevent the American Civil Liberties Union and two advocacy groups (including ACES) from suing the OAG in 1989, claiming in federal court that custodial parents were being denied due process by the OAG's lax enforcement. Lynda Benson, ACES state president, contended that "a million children in Texas were not receiving over a billion dollars in support payments" because it could take anywhere from two to four years before the attorney general took action on a case. What's more, federal time frames dictating how quickly cases move were disregarded, files were lost, information was misplaced and customer service was downright uncivil.

The Texas Legislature responded to the lawsuit with a bill to strip Mattox of the program. Mattox went on the attack, claiming he had tripled the amount of collections since he took over, and if anyone was at fault, it was the Legislature, which was sabotaging his efforts by only giving him enough funding to cover less than half the 370,000 pending cases in the program. The bill, which Mattox branded politically motivated, died it own death in the house.

After Mattox turned the reins over to his successor Dan Morales, the IV-D caseload exploded from nearly 580,000 in 1991 to more than a million in 1998, partly because child support became the only safety net left for many forced off the dole by welfare reform. Half of these were paternity cases, where a dad had to be identified before he could be ordered to pay support. Teen-age pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, a high divorce rate, a downturn in the economy, parents who can't afford their own children--all these made the IV-D program seem as though it were the dumping ground for all the frailties of the human condition. Compound these factors with people who hate the sight of each other, who would rather pay their Sprint bill than their ex-wives, who deny each other access to their own children, who remarry and create new families, who are deadbeat or dead broke, and child-support enforcement becomes even trickier. It was a particular problem for Morales, who was perceived by many as lacking genuine enthusiasm for the job.

Although collections rose substantially during each of his eight years in office, it didn't help that only 18 percent of the million pending cases were actually paying. It also didn't help that Morales was working under a federal time crunch to fully automate a computer system that defied automation, even as its price tag rose from $22 million to $75 million by the time it hobbled online in 1997. Adding to these woes was Morales' decision to divert resources and manpower to Austin to fix the computer system, which resulted in reduced service to customers, whose complaints to legislators topped their list of grievances from constituents. By August 1996, powerful legislative leaders had heard enough. Former state Rep. Leticia Van De Putte of San Antonio renewed the call to eliminate the attorney general's authority over the IV-D program. "I was openly critical of the structure of the program, which gave no priority to child support," says Van De Putte, now a state senator. "Under Morales, there were seven directors in eight years. No one can be that bad a judge of character."

 

One director, Charles Childress, made the career mistake of appearing before the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. According to its chairman, Toby Goodman, Childress was fired from his job in the middle of his testimony. "They locked him out of his office and escorted him from the building," Goodman says. "And then Morales introduced his new director, who had never handled a child-support case in his life."

During those hearings, a siege mentality enveloped the OAG, whose staffers were threatened with their jobs if they communicated with his committee, Goodman says. Nonetheless, he received more than 25 e-mails a week from disgruntled employees complaining bitterly about the Child Support Division. "The agency was not being honest with the Legislature," Goodman claims. "They were hiding numbers, moving them around, diverting funds for things like armored Suburbans rather than putting new caseworkers in the field."

Morales was no political slouch himself, telling the press he was being targeted by Republican lawmakers for being a Democrat and by Democrats who were unhappy about his legal position against affirmative action. By April 1997, Goodman had softened his stance, and the Legislature adopted a compromise measure that put the Child Support Division under a special review. The Sunset Advisory Committee employed an independent auditor who would then recommend whether or not to remove the program from the attorney general's office.

ACES president Lynda Benson and her 1,100 members statewide didn't need to wait for any review. They wanted Morales out of the child-support business immediately and were upset that the Legislature lacked the political will to follow through. "Morales didn't really want to fix the problem," she says. "He just wanted it to look like he was fixing the problem." In 1994, Morales reached a settlement with ACES in their 5-year-old federal lawsuit. ACES believed the agreement would allow custodial parents a better way to monitor their cases by giving them access to the OAG's files. But in dueling press releases an attorney general spokesman said parents would be given the same access they always had: to public documents retrievable under the open-records law.

Kim Sullivan learned she had better keep her own records. Her file had been lost on at least one occasion and mishandled more than she cared to imagine. Even opening the file in September 1993 presented something of a challenge. Federal regulations gave states 20 days to open a new file; Sullivan had to wait more than two months. She spoke to some women at ACES meetings who claimed they were actively discouraged from opening files--told by caseworkers they were wasting their time because their ex-husbands were out of state or couldn't be located without a current address.

Finding Jimmy Heimann was no easy matter. He would move from apartment to house to couch, living with friends, relatives and girlfriends. No longer a truck driver, he had returned to the air-conditioning business, making up to $25 an hour. But garnisheeing his wages didn't help much either. If Sullivan learned where he was working, she would phone the call center in Austin, and if she could manage to speak with a live person rather than get put on hold for an hour, she would give them his business address. It could take as long as a month before a withholding order was in place, and by then Heimann would have quit his job and moved on to another. Or if he got paid as a subcontractor rather than as an employee, there were no wages to garnishee at all. "A lot of men out there own companies, and they don't pay child support either," Sullivan says. "So they just good-ol'-boy each other and help out."

Sullivan claims that over the last eight years, Heimann has lived at 30 to 40 different addresses and "had over 150 jobs, easy." Just getting an OAG demand letter in his hands that would threaten him with legal action if he didn't make arrangements to pay up seemed impossible. The IV-D system didn't make things any easier. "You rarely have the same caseworker," she says. "When you asked for someone's name so you could follow up on the information you provided, you were lucky if they told you."

 

And Sullivan was one of the informed ones, attending monthly ACES meetings, which sought to educate custodial parents about the IV-D process. "The whole thing was so frustrating," she says. "I didn't know what my rights were, and the attorney general wasn't about to tell me. They represent the state. Not only are your kids going without, but you don't know what to ask for." One caseworker told her she should consider hiring a private attorney. "If I could afford a private attorney, I wouldn't need child support," she says.

ACES taught her to remain on the offensive, to force the system to respond by registering her frustration with her state legislators, the governor, her congressman--with anyone willing to listen. And the OAG did give special attention to ACES members, whose cases were often the most difficult to work. Dallas lawyer Steven Brooks, a former assistant attorney general, maintains that during his four-year tenure, his satisfied customers outnumbered his dissatisfied and that it was only natural for troubled cases to be given less priority. "The inclination was to work the easier cases first because you knew you could get results. By the same token, there are those monster cases that never seem to go away; their files are so thick, cases take on a life of their own."

By 1997, Sullivan had remarried and grown weary of chasing her ex-husband. "It was like a part-time job, and I thought, 'Oh well, he's not going to pay, and they're not going to make him.' So I gave up."


No one was more surprised than Sullivan when she received a phone call from recently elected Attorney General John Cornyn's office in February 1999. Apparently, her case had triggered an automatic notification system in the division's computer after Heimann fell $30,000 behind in support. What's more, Heimann had been located through a database that matched recently hired employees and delinquent parents. Not only were his wages being garnisheed, but he could now be served with a contempt motion that would force him to pay what he owed.

Oddly enough, Sullivan tried to discourage them from pursuing the back child support. Checks were coming. The girls were even seeing their father, and she knew that once he learned the attorney general was after him, he would run, which he did. "He just quit his job and got another," she says. "He never stays in any one place long enough to be served."

Only this time, it wasn't for want of trying. When Cornyn took office in January 1999, he pledged to make reforming the Child Support Division a top priority. He had little choice if he wanted the OAG to continue as the state's IV-D agency. In November 1998, the Sunset Advisory Committee issued its report to the Legislature, recommending that the Child Support Division be put on a two-year probation while it underwent massive retooling to improve its lackluster performance and disheartening customer service. The Legislature thought it only fair to give Cornyn a chance to prove himself before it stripped him of the majority of his staff and budget.

"The best thing to happen to John Cornyn was Howard Baldwin," says Van De Putte, referring to Cornyn's choice to head the IV-D agency. "Baldwin reported directly to Cornyn, who then let him [Baldwin] do what he needed to do."

To handle the onslaught of 1.3 million phone calls a month to the Austin call center, only 14 percent of which were answered, the division decentralized the phone system, establishing four regional call centers. By August 2000, 94 percent of customers wishing to speak to service representatives were able to do so. That change alone dramatically reduced the number of complaints to legislators as custodial parents received an immediate answer to their most pressing question: Has he sent the check yet? Customer service became the clarion call of the division, and the OAG's interactive Web site receives thousands of daily visits from custodial and non-custodial surfers alike.

The truth is, Cornyn was lucky. Automated systems that had plagued his predecessors had mostly been debugged. With a robust economy, unemployment rates were lower and child-support awards higher. Congress and the Texas Legislature had put laws on the books that gave him powerful enforcement tools--wage garnishment, driver's license suspensions, child-support liens, locator databases, a new-hire reporting system and federal tax-refund seizures--all of which Baldwin effectively employed. "Each of the last three years popped a new record for collections," Baldwin says proudly. "And this fiscal year we collected a record-breaking $1.2 billion, an increase of over the previous year's record increase of $161 million." By the 2001 legislative session, nearly every significant measure of performance had improved enough that lawmakers decided to take the division off probation.

 

Yet even with the attorney general doing a better job collecting support, for people like Sullivan the problem is so intractable that the state's best efforts may not be enough. Her ex-husband's ability to dodge the serving of court papers was altogether uncanny; the system's sluggish response just seemed to encourage him. The OAG even hired a private process server to do the job, but it wasn't until April 2000--14 months after the attorney general had begun pursuing him again--that Heimann was finally served.

Three weeks later, Sullivan finally got her day in court, and surprisingly enough, Heimann appeared, albeit an hour late. An enforcement officer, Rebecca Echevarria, then escorted them to a large negotiation room where they sat at a table facing each other. Heimann was obviously angry, particularly when Sullivan began writing down every word that was said.

"Did you bring $34,369.10 to court with you today?" Echevarria asked him.

"No."

"Do you have a car, truck, motorcycle, house, anything you could sell to pay this obligation?"

"Nope."

"Well, why aren't you paying your child support?"

"I am."

Sullivan couldn't contain herself. "We are in a court of law, Jimmy. In a court of law, you're supposed to tell the truth."

But it was all right there in the records; Echevarria could see for herself.

He then muttered something about not being able to get work "because of her and this whole child-support mess."

Sullivan interrupted again. "Because of you not showing up for work, is more like it."

"Well, have you ever worked?" Echevarria asked him.

Sure, he had lots of jobs. "I always tell her when I get a new one," he added.

"He never tells me," Sullivan countered. "I always have to find out on my own."

He ignored her comment, ignored her altogether. "Look, I'll pay her for the rest of my life, if I have to."

"Good, because you just may have to," said Echevarria, calculating some figures on a sheet of paper. "Now how much extra can you pay a month?"

"I can't. I don't have a job."

"Well you better get one, maybe two. The judge is going to require you pay $700 a month; that is $400 current support and $300 on the arrearages." He would be placed on a five-year probation, she said. "If you missed one month, a single payment, you will not pass go. You will go directly to jail."

"I never thought I would have to go to jail for having two kids."

And five wives, Sullivan thought to herself.

After the deal was struck, all parties appeared in front of Judge Leonie, who made it all legal. Heimann was held in contempt, but his sentence was suspended for five years. He would do no jail time, would part with no money that day. He would be given one more chance to pay, and if he didn't, he could be locked up for six months--that is, if the state could ever find him again.


It would be easy to dismiss Kim Sullivan's case as some mutant strain of IV-D, an aberration in a system that otherwise delivers reasonably good service to a majority of its customers. But with 20 percent of non-custodial parents who have the means to pay refusing, that would deny the reality of too many custodial parents. And that is something ACES' Lynda Benson is not about to let happen. Yes, John Cornyn has made some major improvements, she reluctantly admits, but "there are 2.8 million children in the state of Texas who are owed child support. And that debt is over $6.7 billion and rising."

The OAG will tell you that enforcement is making a difference: Filings for license suspensions (both driver's and professional) are up; the number of deadbeat parents put in jail is also on the rise. Yet there still exists an overarching philosophy, based on the notion that no one who is in jail can pay child support, that belies tougher enforcement.

"I think things would get better if there were more consequences," says ACES executive board member Patricia Lucio. "If I don't make my car payment, they will get my car. If I don't pay my electric bill, they will turn off my electricity. When the system is so overwhelmed with cases, the chances of a non-custodial parent facing any real consequences are slim."

 

Benson extols her members to keep up the pressure: "Call your legislators and complain, let them know what's happening in your case, and what isn't." Clearly, the OAG responds to those complaints, which have fallen dramatically since Cornyn took over. Baldwin, who was promoted to Cornyn's first assistant last July, admits frankly, "We don't really have the time to spend with each person, to give them a comfort level that we have done everything conceivable to help...But that is our challenge." Baldwin himself became personally involved with Kim Sullivan's case after she told her story to her state representative, Helen Giddings.

Heimann was at it again. From the day he received probation on April 26, 2000, he never made a single child-support payment. Sullivan complained to her caseworker, but it took until August 9, 2000, for the OAG to file a motion to revoke his probation, and he had been dodging service ever since. That's what brought Sullivan to Giddings' office in late September of last year; maybe she could convince the OAG to respond more quickly to the addresses Sullivan was providing.

Giddings contacted a senior OAG official in Austin who promised Sullivan that once the enforcement division had a good address on Heimann, he would be served within 24 hours. But another five months elapsed before Heimann was served, and that was only after Baldwin got involved. A hearing to revoke his probation was scheduled for June 22 this year, but considering the likelihood that he would be going to jail for violating his probation, Sullivan harbored few hopes he would appear.

Days before the court date, however, Heimann phoned and said he wanted to talk to the girls: If Sullivan was going to drag him through court again, then he was going to have a relationship with his children. It had been more than two years since they had heard from him, and Amy refused to speak; Melinda, now 14, mostly listened as he apologized once again for his actions. He had no excuse, really, but said he wanted to see her and make a fresh start; things would be different after court.

That is, if he had shown up for court.

Melinda grew furious when she heard that her father didn't appear and that a warrant would be issued for his arrest. "He treats us like dirt under his feet," she told her mother.

"He embarrasses me to death, with the stuff he pulls," Sullivan told her.

"Embarrasses you?" Melinda said. "You just slept with him a couple of times. We're his blood."

Although Judge Leonie ordered Heimann arrested on the day of the hearing, he didn't sign that order until six weeks later. Ten days after that, the warrant was sent to the Dallas County Sheriff's Office, where it joined thousands waiting to be executed.

Eight years and $46,000 in unpaid child support later, Sullivan provided the OAG with a good address on Heimann--the same address she provided the Dallas Observer. On September 24, the Observer sent Heimann a letter requesting an interview; he contacted us two days later.

"I believe in every daddy paying his child support," he explained. "I am guilty of not paying my child support, but it is not because I don't want to pay. It's because I can't afford it. I want to pay. I want to live a happy, normal life. But why should I suffer? Where is my justice?"

Heimann may be getting that justice sooner than he expected. On October 7, the Mesquite Police answered a family disturbance call at his home. Upon checking his criminal history, the police found the outstanding warrant for his arrest. Heimann remains $46,000 behind in child support, but he also remains behind bars. He currently resides in the Dallas County jail pending a hearing on the motion to revoke his probation.


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