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By Maggie Dwyer, permalink

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago after I got off the phone with the Tarrant County (Texas) Child Support office. Their system is broken—again. It has always been broken, but it is more broken than usual. The screen for checking on payments received by them is three lines in a form. Your account number, your social security number, and your PIN. The PIN is supposed to be invisible to anyone, disguised by the usual ****. But in an alarming bit of transparency, the PIN shows in all of its digital simplicity. If only the functioning of the office itself was so transparent.

A call down there is guaranteed to cause frustration. Years ago, before I had a buffer built up against late payments, I called in tears when they were a week or two late. The payments come from the federal government, withheld directly from the exes’ pay, sent with typical Treasury Department efficiency. Like clockwork payroll checks arrive by every other Thursday; often appearing in direct deposit bank accounts on Wednesday. But the Tarrant County handling of these checks is at least negligent, if not criminal. Why have they never been called on it? Because the mothers who rely on child support payments don’t have the spare cash to hire lawyers to sue the County. Someday, one of us will win the Lotto, and will take them out behind the woodshed for a little legal talking to.

There is a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that they *don’t* process each check as soon as they receive it. This has absolutely nothing to do with my ex, child support is deducted before he receives his check, he doesn’t have to lift a finger to get it to me. The County receives his check every other Wednesday, it’s somewhere in the building. I visualize the mail room with a large tumbler, like they used for selecting postcard contest entries on television game shows of the 1960s. Every so often I get lucky and they draw mine on Wednesday and it arrives in my bank account by Friday (there is always a two business day delay—one wonders if they hold it to collect a little interest? But that’s another topic.) It is my guess that as long as no one has physically pushed the mail cart into the Child Support office, they don’t count it as “received.” So that when the ladies down there take vacation days around the holidays and there are fewer people to open checks it piles up in the mail room—I can be certain that the check will absolutely be later than usual. If I had any, I’d bet money on it.

You are entitled to call and complain if your child support is more than two weeks late, but not before. They’ve covered their asses well with that rule. If you are organized and program your monthly bills, scheduling payments according to when you are supposed to receive funds, you’re out of luck.

Of course there is a reason the Child Support office exists. Those deadbeat parents who don’t pay are detected if they don’t pay. Everyone’s check has to go through this system so they can track who is and isn’t paying. (If  you have the bucks you can pay an attorney to draw up documents and go to court to be withdrawn from the system.) So instead of making it easy for custodial parents to report deadbeat spouses, the state makes everyone’s check go through this crowded little turnstile and live with the continual backlog.

What about this process prompted me to finally vent? It’s because they occasionally deliver a sucker punch. Typically, one in every two or three checks is really late. But then you hit a spell where three or four come absolutely on time like clockwork. You let down your guard, you think someone has put some system into effect to move payments quickly. This is an illusion. A few weeks from now they’ll nail you with a really late check, so don’t ever believe it is fixed. Until your children are grown, you’re stuck. And if you bother to write a letter or call to complain you might as well sign yourself Cassandra, because no one is listening to you.

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