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Last stage of child support effort starts

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GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Prosecutor’s office is preparing for the final stage of clearing a backlog of child support cases in which parents are behind on payments.

Felony charges await parents who owe $1,000 or more.

Prosecutor Michael Griffin has taken an aggressive approach to addressing those who have continually failed to make their court-ordered payments.

In the first phase of the effort last year, the office filed 31 cases against those who had at least $10,000 in arrearage. After a second evaluation of the pool of non-custodial parents, a second sweep brought in an additional 41 cases, that time focusing primarily on those who were $5,000 or more behind.

The office currently has a total of 858 cases with an arrearage exceeding $1,000.

Child support administrator Shelli Poppino said of that number, she has already narrowed the pool to 114 potential cases for prosecution.

Those 114 cases represent $321,597 in back child support.

“Of course, we’re not going to file all those,” she said. “That’s kind of our starting number.”

Instead, Poppino and her case workers are currently in the process of reviewing them to determine which are most appropriate for prosecution.

A number of things could knock a case out of the running. For example, 21 of those parents are incarcerated, making them out of the prosecutor’s office’s reach, Poppino said.

Parents who start making payments will also not be recommended for prosecution.

Typically, filing a felony charge is the last step after a number of other enforcement measures have failed, said Courtney Norris, who has spent the last year and a half as a child-support caseworker.

“We do vehicle liens; we do driver’s license suspensions; we do suspensions on hunting and fishing licenses,” Norris said. “We try to hit them as many of these little enforcements as we can before we get to the big daddy.”

Griffin, a U.S. Army Reservist, is currently deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. While he is not currently in the office, he said his absence has not affected the process of narrowing down the cases that will be recommended for prosecution.

“We’re actually following the protocol we’ve done before, so this is not anything different,” he said.

Griffin said he will conduct a final review of Poppino’s recommendations before determining which cases will go forward. He returns from Cuba in late March and expects to file the felony charges this summer.

Once this final stage is completed, Griffin said he hopes to see a more regular caseload for his staff.

“This is the third and final stage of clearing out the backlog of child-support cases, so what I expect is beginning in 2014, … we’re going to come to a more routine review,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the work will stop by any means, Griffin added. The prosecutor’s office will remain aggressive in prosecuting those who don’t support their children.

“We will continue to charge these cases every year for as long as we find cases with merit,” he said.

Griffin said he doesn’t anticipate prosecuting cases that don’t pass at least the $1,000 threshold.

Failure to support a dependent child is a Class D felony carrying a penalty of six months to three years in jail and $10,000 in fines. If the parent has accumulated $15,000 or more in arrearage within the past five years, the charge may be elevated to a Class C felony, which carries a penalty of up to three years in jail and $10,000 in fines.

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