Child Support Scare Tactic Stopped
By John Solis, volunteer, Fathers and Families
For more than 20 years, the South Carolina Department of Social Services used false contempt of court threat to scare parents behind on their child support. It would issue a summons to appear for a hearing and pointedly remind the parent that he or she could be held in contempt of court for failure to pay.
Of course, it was an empty threat. No judge was present. It was not a judicial proceeding. Nobody could be held in contempt. The scare it placed in child support obligors who received it, however, was real. And yes, it skirted, if it not violated, all notions of due process.
One father questioned this practice. Because of his lawsuit, this scare tactic has been stopped.
The agency is now enjoined from issuing a summons for a negotiation conference and can no longer refer to such conferences or any other proceedings in which a judge will not be involved as judicial hearings. It also must file a rule to show cause when initiating a contempt matter and use the Family Court civil coversheet to commence litigation. This is a standard practice.
The father who stopped this abuse of power is Gregory Charping. Charping sued the Department of Social Services and its Child Support Enforcement Division for frivolous litigation after it served him last year with a summons and complaint. It stated that he could be held in contempt during an upcoming court hearing for failure to pay child support.
But it turns out that the hearing DSS had referred to was actually an administrative negotiation conference with one of the agency’s child support enforcement attorneys – there would be no judge present and no chance of a contempt order.
DSS had been using the summons and complaint documents that it served on Charping since at least the 1990s and in every Family Court in the state. The agency stated in a court filing that no one had ever complained before.
“This apparently had become routine practice among the state’s child support attorneys and child support collection offices despite the obvious due process and legal and ethical issues with this approach,” said Charping’s attorney, Kirby R. Mitchell of South Carolina Legal Services in Greenville.
Charping had lost his job and was struggling with anxiety issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. When he saw the summons and complaint from DSS he believed he was going to jail, which sent him into a tailspin that led to a panic attack and a trip to the emergency room.
DSS has contended that its child support conferences fit the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of a hearing. But under the South Carolina Rules of Family Court, a judge must be present during a judicial hearing.
The agency also has asserted that the summons and complaint it served on Charping and others across the state were automatically generated by a computer program from the 1980s, and it is impossible to determine who approved the practice.
“You’re threatening South Carolina citizens with jail. Your attorneys are signing these documents,” Mitchell said. “You’re not taking responsibility for that? You’re nailing that on a computer from the ’80s?”
Calling it a “systemic issue” that has been corrected, William C. Smith, assistant general counsel in the DSS office of general counsel in Columbia, said “the practice itself is not something that is traceable to an individual” at DSS.
Shortly before the lawsuit was set to go to trial July 10, DSS and Charping agreed during a court-ordered mediation session to a settlement deal that will affect child support attorneys and litigants throughout the state.
DSS will pay $10,000 to South Carolina Legal Services to hold continuing legal education seminars for its child support enforcement lawyers, along with more than $2,000 for Charping’s mediation costs and fees. Charping agreed to drop a separate civil rights suit against DSS seeking damages for emotional harm and medical costs.
“I did what I thought in my heart was the right thing to do,” Charping said of filing the suit and eventually dropping his personal claim. “I couldn’t imagine that other people went through the same thing as me or more.”
“Alleged deadbeat parents often don’t have attorneys. The people it was being practiced on were not in a position to object and so this practice had become common and accepted,” Mitchell said. “This would never have happen between well-represented parties.”
Six Letter F-Word Excised
Sent by Tom Lorenzo, member, Fathers and Families
According to The American Conservative, “fathers” are disappearing in Britain.
“At the end of May, the National Health Service, the largest employer in Britain — and the fifth largest in the world — took the decision to excise the six-letter f-word from a pamphlet on rearing children that it has been giving to mothers- and fathers-to-be for the past 14 years. The pamphlet will no longer refer to fathers following a complaint from one person — yes, that is all it takes to airbrush people from history in modern Britain — who was concerned that such terminology is “not inclusive of people in same-gender relationships.” From now on the pamphlet will refer to mothers and “partners.” Dads are so 20th century.”