Gila County continues to lead the nation in child support collection and enforcement.
During the last fiscal year, the county attorney’s Child Support Division collected $5.3 million in child support — a small decrease from the $5.5 million collected a year earlier.
This is the second time in recent years that the county’s Child Support Division has ranked No. 1 in the nation based on five federal standards. It is also the third time in a row that the division has received a perfect score on an internal assessment audit.
Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores attributed the success of the program to staff — including caseworkers, judges and officers. She said they all work together to make sure deadbeats pay.
Only four counties in Arizona manage their own child support enforcement programs — Gila, Navajo, Pinal and La Paz counties. Other counties leave child support collection to the state attorney general’s office.
Tracking and enforcing child support orders is hard work, Flores said. More than a dozen county caseworkers are charged with locating parents and helping establish paternity and child support orders.
Locating parents is not always easy, especially ones that do not want to pay. Flores said caseworkers are like detectives in many regards. They often interview the parent’s family and friends, work with officers and hit the streets themselves.
The county’s system of tracking parents has a history of working where other counties have not.
In January 2010, another state office transferred a child support case to the Gila County attorney’s office because that office could not locate the parent. Within a month of receiving the case, Gila County caseworkers had received a court order, served the parent and had them in court, Flores said.
“They work the cases and stay on top of them,” Flores said. “They can find anybody just about anywhere.”
In an average week, more than 100 child support hearings are held in Payson and Globe courtrooms.
Working with the courts and police officers is vital to enforcing child support orders. Caseworkers would not have the same level of success without the support of either, she said.
Officers on the street make the arrests and jails house offenders. This can be difficult because most jails are overcrowded, but is often necessary to enforce support orders.
The goal of the division is to ensure children receive financial support from their parents, first through civil remedies and then criminal charges if necessary.
“The Child Support Division of the Gila County attorney’s office always attempts to enforce child support obligations civilly or administratively first.
“Unfortunately, there are some parents who, in spite of the best efforts of the child support division, still will not comply with their child support obligations,” according to the county attorney’s Web site. When this happens, caseworkers have a cache of civil tools to see support is given, including wage garnishment, license and passport suspension, seizing property and bank accounts or tax refunds.
“What all of these remedies have in common is that they are all non-criminal,” according to the division’s Web site.
“In other words, although they can have severe financial consequences and even sometimes result in someone who is ordered to pay child support being incarcerated for a period of time, none of them can result in the person paying support being convicted of a crime.”
When necessary, the attorney’s office files criminal charges.
“The division uses all available state and federal remedies to enforce child support orders,” according to Flores’ office.
But before any wages are taken, establishing paternity is the first step in the child support process. In Arizona, 45 percent of children are born to unwed parents, according to the Arizona attorney general’s office.
After paternity is established, many parents opt to pay, but many more wait until legal action is involved. When a non-custodial parent has not paid for some time, a judge can order a purge payment. To avoid imprisonment, the full amount must be paid. Last year, the attorney’s office collected on 278 purge payments totaling $160,000.