New Friend of the Court changes designed to answer complaints

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Michelle Sanders-Crawford is happy that Michigan’s Friend of the Court system is being changed to make it more “customer-friendly.”
But the young Okemos resident and divorced mother of two children is still skeptical until she sees what happens.
Sanders-Crawford shares with many single parents the challenge of trying to give her sons the best quality of life possible on a limited income. A nail design professional at a salon in Haslett, she has had to shoulder the responsibility of raising her children with no assistance from her ex-husband.
A former resident of the Detroit area, her case is still handled out of the FOC office in Detroit. For parents like her, receiving adequate services from the agency is crucial.
“I want to see how all these changes play out,” she said. “Right now, you can’t even get the Detroit office on the telephone to ask a question, let alone to check on the status of your case or file a complaint.”
Sanders-Crawford isn’t alone. Over recent months, a surge of complaints from parents statewide have been leveled at the agency, ranging from an inadequate phone system to little or no action on active cases.
Responding to complaints, Gov. John Engler announced Thursday new changes to the state’s FOC system to improve its efficiency and effectiveness.
“Today’s actions are intended to send the message to all parents that they have a responsibility to provide for their children — and that the state will be on the side of the children,” Engler said.
One major change is the creation of the new Child Support Leadership Council, which will replace the current Child Support Coordinating Council.
Engler said the change will mean a more centralized structure of services within the agency, as well as a new “opt out” provision that will substantially benefit families who rely on the agency’s services.
The new council is made up of nine community leaders with experience in dealing with child-support issues.
In addition to the advisory council, the governor also called for a centralization of certain enforcement activities designed to enable the FOC to devote more of its time and energy to difficult or labor-intensive cases.
Sanders-Crawford said she has received infrequent support payments for her two boys, ages 8 and 9, and that little is being done about it.
“Many of us are not only lacking regular if any payments, but are also unable to even get any information on the progress of our cases,” she said. “I’d like to see some major changes.”
According to the governor, the “opt out” option will relieve those parents who make regular payments of FOC collection enforcement action. The intention of the plan is to reduce caseloads thereby allowing more time to handle problem cases. Alternative collection services will also be implemented, Engler said, to assist FOC in collecting from parents who are delinquent in their payments.
Michigan’s 80-year-old system, created to provide financial assistance to children of divorce or other unions, has been besieged with complaints from frustrated parents receiving little, infrequent or no assistance.
The agency’s operations have been hampered for many years by an overwhelming caseload in a system with more than 800,000 child-support orders to enforce statewide.
Agency statistics show that more than $10 million in payments was collected in Ingham County during the first quarter of 2002. Collections for Emmet County for the first half of 2002 amounted to more than $1 million. Information for Crawford County was unavailable.
Included in the list of improvements to the system is continued monitoring of the agency’s new computerized payment and collection system, now operating statewide.
The governor also proposed a change in the agency’s name from Friend of the Court to Court Family Services Office.
Engler called the name change a reaffirmation of the office’s dedication to serving the needs of its customers, signifying “a new beginning.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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