By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
A posting on Facebook caught a father’s attention prompting him to further investigate.
“I thought it was a scam at first. It was a grandmother begging the public for money to travel to Louisiana to gain custody of her two grandchildren, who had been placed in foster care,” said Terrell, whose last name has been withheld to conceal his identity. “I discovered that one of the children was my son. His grandmother started a foundation to raise money to retrieve them from foster care. I later learned that my son had been brutally beaten by his mother’s boyfriend, with her permission. School officials saw his bruises and reported it to protective services. I tracked down my son and fought the authorities to bring him back home to Michigan.”
Now, Terrell is undertaking another fight against Michigan’s Friend of the Court to maintain full custody of his 11-year-old son and to erase child support arrears totaling about $20,000 that he says have been unfairly charged against him.
“They said I owe $20,000, but he’s been in my care for 8 years,” explained Terrell. “She took him out of state without my permission and did not notify the court. Every time he’s in her care, something stupid happens. That should have flagged Michigan’s court system that something was wrong. Because their system isn’t linked to other state court systems, Michigan didn’t know what was going on.”
Terrell says he made several attempts to notify the Friend of the Court that he had custody of his son, but the requests to render child support never ceased.
Unlike Terrell who willingly acknowledged paternity and supports his child, some fathers refuse to sign the birth certificate and seek to dodge orders to appear in court.
Lamar, a 27-year-old father of three by two women, refused to sign his children’s birth certificates and failed to appear in court to determine paternity. As a result, he was named the father of two children by default.
“I don’t need anyone to tell me how to raise my kids,” says Lamar, who works under the table jobs to avoid reporting his income. “I give what I can, when I can. My kids aren’t hungry, and they have a roof over their head.”
Efforts to avoid court ordered appearances are useless, says Wayne County’s new interim Friend of the Court Kent Weichmann.
“We know the court can be an intimidating atmosphere. We’re trying to encourage people to come and talk to us,” says Weichmann. “The worse thing that people do is when they avoid talking to us and assume the worse. If you are required to show up for a court hearing and won’t show up, you’re saying that the court can do anything it wants without hearing from me. We really want people to exercise their opportunity to present their side.”
When it comes to helping fathers to present their side of child support issues to the court, Friends of Fathers (FOF) has been coaching them to successfully navigate through the court system since July 2007.
“In 2006, I noticed that every four out of five men that stood in line at the Friend of the Court ended up going to jail,” recalls Joseph Farley, founder of FOF. “These fathers were all saying when they sat down that they didn’t have a job to pay their child support. They had enough guts to go and to say they needed help, but the court told them, ‘You’re going to have to pay or you’ll have to stay.’”
Payments are calculated using the Michigan Child Support Formula.
“It looks into how many children are involved, how much each parent earns, and how much time the child spends with each parent,” adds Weichmann. “Parenting time is determine by what’s in the best interests of the child.”
While motions can be filed to make adjustments in the payment amount with changes in circumstances, payees complain of the court not setting up a system for the custodial parent to report how the money is spent.
“Mothers get their hair done, nails done, buy a new car, and (use the money to) take care of the new man is the biggest complaint of fathers,” notes Farley. “There’s nothing that makes them obligated to show that they’re spending this money on their kids. When fathers pick up their children, they complain that their children didn’t have on decent clothes or shoes. You have to report that information yourself to child protective services, if your child isn’t being taken care of.”
Terrell agrees that a system should be developed to keep track on how recipients of child support are spending the funds.
“They should report on what they’re spending it on,” he says. “They should not have free range to do whatever it is they want to do with the money. They should also do an in-home case study to see what’s going on in the household and who’s in the household. A lot of guys have to get jobs under the table to be able to support themselves. Every case filed should be investigated and not taken based on somebody’s word. The mothers and the fathers should both be drug tested. Everything should be equal across the board. They should have a cap. Having a baby now is a business. They (the mothers) aren’t trying to look for work. The more babies they have, the more money and food stamps they get. They don’t have to work. The mothers have the latest purses, then they say that they don’t have any money and want more.”
Similar fears have cause some men to avoid the Friend of the Court.
Seeking to ease fears about appearing in the Friend of the Court and to educate fathers on the process, FOF has helped hundreds of fathers to lessen or erase their arrears, establish parenting time or gain custody.
“I said something has to be done about this. I decided to do something about it. I decided to study on it and decided to become a life coach by taking classes at Schoolcraft College,” adds Farley. “We do not represent them in a court of law nor do we lead them to believe that we are. With our coaching, it can help him greatly. They ask those questions and get all the answers they need to address their issues. We also have a professional relationship with Crawford and Associates. So if you want an attorney, we have an attorney to handle the law part of it. We get results. Don’t run from the Friend of the Court. Don’t be afraid to go through the process.”
As Terrell continues to fight for full custody of his son, he shares his regrets and offers advice to other fathers.
“Don’t go to the Friend of the Court. Go to your state representative,” he advises. “It’s not a court. It’s just a business. They are not down for the kids, mothers or fathers. They pit the two against each other. The name is misleading, because they’re not your friend.”
For additional information on Friends of Fathers, call (313)983-0044 or visit online at www.friendsoffathers.org.