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BENTONVILLE -- Sarah Blevins stood in a Benton County court last month to explain why she had not paid her court-ordered child support.

She had paid $98 since April and owes more than $15,000 in back child support.

When a prosecutor gets involved

The Office of Child Support Enforcement will refer a case to a local prosecutor if the case meets the following requirements:

• A case has been open for enforcement for the preceding 12 months and the non-custodial parent has not been incarcerated during that time frame.

• Past due child support exceeds $10,000.

• Arrears are owed to the family rather than assigned to the state due to public assistance and the arrears cannot include medical support.

• No payments received within the last 180 days.

• Verified address for the non-custodial parent.

• The custodial parent responds and returns an affidavit provided by Office of Child Support Enforcement requesting prosecution.

Source: Staff report

Blevins, who lives in Carroll County, is among the 10 percent of female noncustodial parents whose cases are handled by the Arkansas Office of Child Support. Men make up 90 percent of the noncustodial parents in cases handled by the office, said Jake Bleed, a spokesman for the office.

William Threet of Little Flock believes men and women are treated differently by the courts and the Office of Child Support when it comes to paying child support.

Threet became ill and lost his job a few years ago. He soon fell behind in his child support. He was threatened with jail by a deputy if he did not pay $2,000, he said. He thinks a man who is behind on child support payments is punished quicker with longer jail stays than a woman in the same position.

Bleed said women and men are treated the same when it comes to paying child support. He also said the office does not keep statistics about the number of people jailed in child support cases.

"Men and women are treated equally -- the rules and guidelines for the management of a child support case are the same regardless of the gender of the custodial or noncustodial parent," Bleed said.

Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said it's a common misconception that men are treated more harshly.

"Everybody thinks that, especially the men who are noncustodial parents," Durrett said. "Those are some of the angriest calls we get."

Ben Roberds, a Bentonville attorney, also said child support cases are handled the same for men and women. The huge discrepancy between the number of men and women who are noncustodial parents may be one factor that creates confusion, Roberds said.

Durrett said he doesn't keep up with the numbers, but custodial parents are overwhelmingly female.

"I don't recall getting many women defendants," Durrett said. "It's not something we see a lot."

Benton County Circuit Judge Doug Schrantz said the court doesn't keep statistics on which sex is jailed more often for nonpayment of child support.

"If you are asking me do women go to jail for not paying child support, the answer is yes," Schrantz said.

Schrantz recently had to decide whether Blevins should be sent to the Benton County jail for nonpayment.

Michael Shone, an attorney for Child Support Enforcement, asked Schrantz to find Blevins in willful contempt for failing to follow the court's orders and pay child support.

Blevins said she had been ill and lost her job and had been unable to pay. Blevins said she does not have any money and hopes to get approved for disability benefits.

"I just can't work while I'm trying to get my disability," Blevins told the court.

Keshia Guyll, spokesman for the Benton County sheriff's office, said six people have been jailed this year after being arrested in criminal cases involving nonpayment of child support. Guyll also said some individuals had been found in contempt and jailed for failing to pay child support.

In Washington County, 30 people have been booked into the detention center since the first of the year for nonpayment of support and 37 more were booked in for either contempt of court or a court order based on an original charge involving failing to pay child support, according to Kelly Cantrell, public information officer for the sheriff's office.

Carrie Dobbs, Benton County deputy prosecutor, said the majority of such cases arise when a person files a complaint with the office over the nonpayment. The Office of Child Support occasionally may refer a case for prosecution, Dobbs said.

Nathan Smith, Benton County prosecuting attorney, said his staff prefers people exhaust their efforts with Child Support Enforcement before going to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor's office cannot garnish wages or tax returns for failing to pay child support, Smith said.

Smith said his office can place a person on probation for failing to pay child support, but then the felony conviction could harm their efforts to find a job.

Most complaints about failure to pay child support are not made out of spite, but because the custodial parent is not getting the court-ordered financial help to which they're entitled, Durrett said.

"With non-support, the important thing is the money. Your main focus is getting money to that child," Durrett said. "We try to work with people in these situations because we want to get money to the kids."

A strongly worded letter to the offender pointing out they could be charged with a felony is often enough to spur them to pay up without filing charges, Durrett said.

In the Blevins case, Schrantz opted to give her another chance. Blevins will have to present documentation about her medical condition when she appears back in court Aug. 22.

"Do not make me send a deputy sheriff after you," Schrantz told her.

Metro on 08/14/2016

Print Headline: State: Child-support cases treated same

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