By Kristy Deer | Daily Reporter
HANCOCK COUNTY — Making sure the county’s most vulnerable children are cared for properly is a priority with officials from the prosecutor’s office.
Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic the past year, the prosecutor’s office set a record for total child support collections in a one-year period, taking in $4,616,885 in 2020.
The record total is an increase of about 4% over 2019 collections.
The money is collected as enforcement of child support court orders for non-custodial parents to support their children. The money collected is often a lifeline helping to provide basic needs such as food and clothing for growing children.
“It is very rewarding to know that in an economic environment with so much uncertainty, that our team has found ways to keep this valuable financial lifeline open for Hancock County’s children,” Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
Concerns about COVID-19 forced the office to adapt. Multiple steps were taken to ensure employee and client safety. In-person appointments with the office were limited, then ultimately stopped.
Communication that previously occurred in person now occurs over the phone or via email.
The prosecutor’s office worked with the Hancock County IT department and the state Department of Child Services to find ways to work remotely while adhering to state and federal confidentiality guidelines, officials said.
The success has allowed the office to continue to work effectively even though the layout of the office space makes social distancing impossible. There were zero positive COVID-19 tests among employees of the child support department in 2020.
“I am very proud that the Hancock County prosecutor’s office has been open every business day this year and, unlike many other county offices throughout the state, has never closed,” Eaton said. “It has been a real challenge, but our team has risen to the occasion and been able to faithfully fulfill our obligations to the public.”
Eaton credited child support director Susan Sherwood, who has worked with his office to find creative ways to keep things going despite the challenges.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the community essentially was shut down, Sherwood was a one-person machine who kept pushing even as staff members were forced to stay home.
“She was the only one working for about a month doing whatever she could to keep things going,” Eaton said.
Sherwood, who credits her staff for its record intake, said she was glad to be able to help and continue collecting the support payments for county children.
“It’s wonderful news we were able to keep our numbers up and even better than the year before,” Sherwood said. “We’re just so grateful for the children of Hancock County that we were able to do this for the families.”
Taking things a day at a time was Sherwood’s plan. The staff kept in frequent contact with families to reassure them that cases were being monitored and that violations would be checked.
“We’re like a well-oiled machine,” Sherwood said. “We always know what the next step in the process is, and we’re always thinking two steps ahead.”
Eaton is gratified that that the child-support collection effort was able to overcome the adversity of the pandemic. The state noticed as well: DCS recently notified the office that it met all federal performance measures and received a 100% passing rating in a recent random assessment of cases statewide.
“When you have challenges, you learn a lot about people, and having Susan on board, we were able to put a lot on her back to keep the ship going,” Eaton said. “Some people find excuses, others find a way, and I’m proud we found a way.”