Tawanna Rasco's ex-husband hasn't made court-ordered child support payments in 10 years. He's now more than $50,000 in arrears.
For nine of those ten years, Rasco couldn't get the El Paso County Department of Child Support Services to follow through sufficiently to attach her ex's wages or bring him to court, even though she knew where he worked. "All they'd ever do," she complained, "was send him a letter saying he has to pay child support."
The county finally prosecuted him in March of last year, but he was a no-show in court. Police arrested him in Denver and he was brought to trial last month, but he didn't have to pay a dime or post bond. The county let him off after he promised to begin support payments within 45 days.
Seven weeks later, he still hasn't paid a penny.
Deeply frustrated with lack of resolution from the county, Rasco turned for help to a non-profit organization called ACES (Association for Children for Enforcement of Support), which lobbies county, state and federal government for more rigorous child support enforcement.
According to local ACES head Denise Stinson, Colorado is one of the lowest-rated states in terms of enforcing federal child support laws and guidelines. El Paso County, meanwhile, is the lowest-rated county in Colorado.
"El Paso County is one of the worst places you can live if you're a woman [who's] supposed to be getting child support," she said.
Numerous statistics and publications bear her out. With more than 20,000 open child support cases involving 39,000 children, the county is ranked last or next-to-last in four of 10 performance-measurement categories published by the State Office of Child Support Enforcement.
The figures for the rest of Colorado are equally dismal. A report issued by the state auditor's office in June of last year states that Colorado has accumulated over $1 billion in unpaid child support -- double the national average -- with a collection rate of only 18 percent, well below the national average.
"Colorado has a very sorry record of child support collections," said Lou Rose, a retired investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and co-author of Make the Jerk Pay: Tracking Down a Deadbeat Dad and Getting Child Support. "Since 1993, the state has ranked anywhere from 38th to 47th in the country."
Passing the uncollected buck
Until 1996, El Paso County contracted with the District Attorney's office to enforce child support services. According to DA Jeanne Smith, the county opted to privatize the service in 1996 because caseloads were proliferating faster than the DA office could manage.
In response, the Board of County Commissioners solicited contract bids for child support services and selected Maximus, a Virginia-based company that provides the service to eight states and employs 4,000 people in 130 offices nationwide.
ACES claims that child support services have deteriorated in El Paso County ever since. The organization notes that last year's state auditor's report faulted Maximus in the areas of understaffing, poor management, large numbers of errors and substandard enforcement.
Taxpayers, Stinson insists, are paying more for less under Maximus.
"We paid the DA's office $1 million a year," she said. "They had a staff of 40, and we had one of the top records in the state. We now pay Maximus $2.8 million a year, they have a staff of 59 and we're scraping the bottom of the state barrel."
ACES membership in El Paso County stands at around 2,000. Nationally, there are 40,000 members in 48 states. "Membership is mushrooming," Stinson said, "because child support problems are mushrooming."
According to the Federal Office of Child Support, more than $50 billion in unpaid support is due some 30 million children nationwide. Half of white children growing up in single parent households live at or below the poverty level because of unpaid child support. The figure jumps to 60 percent for Hispanic children and 70 percent for black children.
"This is of enormous consequence to every American," Rose pointed out in an interview last week, "because uncollected child support puts millions of children into poverty, which contributes to homelessness, school failure, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, violent tendencies and gang or criminal activity."
Local Maximus director Mary Anne Fortezzo said she's not free to discuss individual cases brought up by ACES. "There are areas where we need to improve," she conceded, but she insisted that "Maximus has come a long way in a short time."
Pauline Burton, director of the State Office of Child Support Enforcement, also defended Maximus and said collections in El Paso County rose from $13.8 to $20.8 million between 1997 and 1999.
Stinson, though, claims the increase is misleading. "The average level of child support rose from $100 to $350 a month in the 1990s," she said, "so that increase in dollars collected is not a result of higher collection rates. What ACES wants is more rigorous enforcement of child support laws that result in collections for more children."
Maximus hasn't impressed Colorado Springs resident and ACES member Betty Vasquez either. Her ex has gotten away with failing to pay his court-ordered $435-a-month child support for three years.
"I knew where he worked all along," she said, "but the county wouldn't attach his wages like the law says. Then I found out the county was collecting support from him for a kid he had with a different wife. I can't get them to explain why they were collecting from my ex-husband for that kid but not for my three kids."
Now her ex is claiming disability, and his lawyer gets every court date postponed. "He can pay a lawyer, but he can't pay his kids' child support," Vasquez said, her bitterness audible.
Maximus is in the last year of a five-year contract with the county. The Board of County Commissioners plans to put the contract up for bid again at the end of this year.