Minnesota child support laws impair father's efforts to provide
MISSION, S.D. - A Minnesota penalty enforcing payment of child support for deadbeat dads is impairing efforts of a single father on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation to improve his employment prospects which would allow him to support his children.
In his late 30s, the single father, who was homeless, moved from Denver, Colo., with few dollars in his pocket and an elementary school student in tow. A local couple aided him in his efforts to establish a home, helped him find employment and begin to tackle a daunting task of eliminating debt and back child support.
The father, whose identity has been withheld to protect his school-age daughter, earns nearly $7 an hour at an area convenience store, but his skills would allow him to hold a higher paying job as a commercial truck driver.
However, the state of Minnesota's "get tough" policy for enforcing child support allowed the state to suspend the father's Colorado license. The suspension is one of the tougher penalties Minnesota uses to force the child support payments.
But it makes it difficult for parents struggling financially to meet the child support demands.
He said the suspension took away the prospect of a job offer that would have paid nearly $4 an hour more so he could work at catching up on nearly $18,000 of back child support. It also prevented him from obtaining a license in South Dakota, leaving him underemployed.
He has appealed to reduce the child support for a child living in Minnesota because he is laboring just to keep up with financial demands of raising a child, alone on the reservation.
Unable to drive, he has to hitchhike nearly 10 miles to work and struggles daily to provide a minimum of necessities.
The father and his daughter live in surroundings that are far from luxurious - a one-bedroom home where he sleeps in the living room. To keep expenses at a minimum, they have only local phone service and live without cable television. Child care would be a hardship if it weren't for his friends who stepped in to care for his daughter while he works.
His net income is around $958 a month and he receives as much as $113 in food stamps each month. Without the child support obligation, the family living expenses are $1,308, leaving him $350 short each month.
Having his wages garnished for a $184 monthly child support payment will push him and his daughter further into debt, leaving them with just $534 a month. His rent is nearly $300 a month plus utilities. A cold winter and rising propane prices have made matters even more distressing, he said.
"Every day is a struggle to keep a roof over my daughter's head."
The man, who dropped out of elementary school, has poor reading and comprehension skills. He has had two failed marriages and a relationship with a woman in Minnesota, the mother of his son, a child he said he may not have fathered.
His teen and young adult years included bouts with drug and alcohol abuse along with numerous brushes with the law including a prison sentence for felony assault in connection with beating a man with an ax.
He drifted from job to job and state to state, usually working seasonal jobs, including a stint with a carnival and an assortment of laborer or construction jobs, never staying in one place very long.
His brushes with the law were because he needed money to buy drugs and alcohol, he said, but his last experience in prison and embracing traditional tribal cultural values while he was there, turned his life around. He sought help and has been sober for 10 years, he said.
Today he works a graveyard shift, and despite his determination, finds himself wondering if he and his daughter are simply not falling through the cracks.
Minnesota establishes the amount a parent pays in child support based on potential income. He said this is how he fell so far behind on his child support. The mother of his son initiated child support while he was in prison.
The man, whose memory may have been impaired with earlier drug and alcohol use, said blood samples were taken while he was in prison but he doesn't remember when. He said he didn't understand what he was signing when officials presented the court documents nor did anyone explain what he was signing while in prison.
Child support payments piled up when he was released from prison and began working as a construction worker in Colorado. Minnesota officials later garnished payments from his wages. His seasonal job ended and he began to incur more debt in back child support which is when Minnesota officials decided to suspend his driver's license for nonpayment.
The young father appealed to the state to reduce child support from $341 to $184 a month, but he is worried the state's failure to address a payment schedule for the $18,000 in back child support will impair his efforts to catch up.
He has asked state officials to reconsider the suspension of the license, saying that without a driver's license he can't improve his employment prospect and apply the increase in wages to the outstanding child support debt.
"I do my best to meet my responsibilities. "If I could get my driver's license, it would be a good start," he said.
His recent appeal for the reduction was approved, but Minnesota officials haven't addressed reinstatement of his driver's license or his contention that a requirement that he buy health insurance coverage for his son in Minnesota is too taxing for him financially.