Mom Forced To Pay When Dad's Child Support Checks Bounce

He bounced several child support checks to his former wife, and now state officials are taking money from her account to make up for it. Does that sound fair to you? Well it didn't to 7NEWS Investigator John Ferrugia. It caused him to examine the state family registry system.

The state family registry is a sort of official accounting service where parents who owe child support can write a check to the state registry and the registry, in turn, passes the money on to the custodial parent and the kids.

But 7NEWS found that, if dad's check bounces, mom and the kids can pay the price.

"He was ordered to pay child support and maintenance, and he was ordered pay it through the family support registry," said Lea, who didn't want her last name used.

When Lea and her husband divorced in 2005 he was ordered to pay $2,700 monthly to support her and their three children.

Records show the first bounced check was in February -- after the state had already deposited it in her account.

"I received a letter from child support enforcement telling me the funds had been dispersed erroneously because the funds weren't good, and that I would have to accept a payment arrangement and I would have to pay them back 10 percent every month when he paid the child support," said Leah.

"You got a letter saying you would have to basically cover the check?" Ferrugia asked.

"Yes. His bounced check, I would be responsible for," Leah said.

"We do concurrent collection. We continue to try to collect it from him and we try to collect it from her," said Paula McKey, director of Boulder County Social Services.

She said the family support registry serves a valuable role.

It provides an official record of payments for both parties in a divorce. It provides verification for enforcement and it helps remove much of the explosive emotion involved, reducing support to a business transaction.

But McKey admits, in some cases, there are drawbacks.

"If he bounces the check to her, why would you want to collect the money from her?" Feruggia said.

"Well, we are required to," McKey said.

"Is that fair?" Ferrugia asked.

"Well, no, actually I don't think it is fair," McKey said.

For Lea and her three children, whose privacy she wants to protect, the loss of $270 per month is substantial.

"That's money that I can use to buy groceries for the kids or clothing or shoes or whatever they need," Lea said.

"If they contact us, we don't have to take the 10 percent, they can negotiate that it be zero. They can actually negotiate that it be written off," said John Bernhart, the director of the child support division for the state.

He contends that the letter sent to Lea is clear about her acceptance of the monthly 10-percent payback.

"What it does say, John, is that if you fail to respond to this letter, we will consider it an agreement. If they do respond to the letter, there is no agreement," said Bernhart.

"But it doesn't say that here. It doesn't say anything about a waiver here. She has no way of knowing that," Ferrugia said.

"Maybe the letter could be worded a little differently, I think is what you are getting at, and I think that is something we could consider. But the reality is if a custodial parent has a concern about this proposal to take 10 percent of subsequent child support payments, they can contact their county department and if they express a concern about it, that's not an agreement," Bernhart said.

"It said if I did not agree with that to contact them," Lea said.

Despite such assurances from state officials, Lea said she was allowed to negotiate nothing.

"I immediately called my case worker. I was very angry and I said, 'That's taking food off the table for us.' I mean we need every penny. Her response was that I had agreed to that in that application," Lea said. "It makes no sense to me. I didn't bounce the check, but they're trying to recover the payments from me."

Lea is one of scores of women in Colorado who deal with this issue every month. But, as Bernhart correctly points out, it is a small percentage of the tens of thousands who recieve child support through the registry. And he said most of the insufficient funds are eventually collected.

Officials said while verifying funds before transferring them to the custodial parent's account could solve the problem, it is simply not cost effective.

Since 7NEWS' investigation, Boulder County has replaced Lea's case manager, but is still withholding funds. So, while our investigation will get help for Lea, it is not going change a system the she believes is unfair to her and many other women statewide.

Have a question or comment about this story? Or have a story idea or news tips? Call us at (303) 832-TIPS or e-mail us at 7NEWSInvestigates@TheDenverChannel.com.