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.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald