Alabama owed more than $3 billion in back child support payments

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ARAB, Ala. - Imagine going to the bank only to learn your checking and savings accounts have been seized by the government. It happened last month to a Marshall County man. The State of Alabama seized his money because of past due child support payments. But there's a twist.

Marcus Simmons is trying to support two families on a rather small income. He had two children by his first wife, but they divorced several years ago. He has since remarried and has a new family, with another child on the way. So when the Department of Human Resources seized his paycheck last month, it left him unable to support either family. And our Taking Action investigation reveals his story is not that unusual.

Marcus Simmons says he's trying to do what’s right but feels he's being punished for it, and he may be correct. By trying to hold down a regular job, maintain a bank account, pay his bills and his child support payments, he set himself up as an easy target.

“They completely wiped me out, nothing,” Simmons said explaining the garnishment DHR filed against his checking and savings accounts.

“And left you with what to get by on,” we asked?

“Zero. $0.00. Nothing."

Marcus had to borrow money in order to feed his family last month. Meanwhile, checks began to bounce, including his January child support check.

“DHR drains my account and then sends me back the child support check that I sent for insufficient funds. I mean, what do you do? What do you do?"

Simmons' attorney says it's tactics like this that drive some non-custodial parents underground.

"If we could focus in on this situation and try not to hurt the ones who are trying to provide for everybody and are actually paying towards those arrearages willingly then I think it would go a long way towards helping families in Alabama in general,” said Sree Lavi, Simmons’ attorney.

So we went to Montgomery and spoke with Faye Nelson, the Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Human Resources. They make no apologies for their efforts to collect past due child support payments.

“The bottom line is about the children. We want to make certain that these children are cared for, financially first of all, and also emotionally,” Nelson says.

Nelson wouldn't discuss the Simmons case but told us anyone more than $1,000 past due on their child support is subject to what she calls administrative measures to collect the money. We're told it's an automated process with no regard for what that parent may be left to live on.

“Monthly repayment of arrears does not bar other enforcement mechanisms that DHR can use,” Nelson says.

Simmons was told he could appeal the DHR’s actions, and he did. I was there the other day when he received the letter informing him they were not even going to hear his appeal.

"Definitely, if you just file a garnishment on somebody like they did to Mr. Simmons, I could definitely see them getting off the grid, closing any bank accounts they had, refusing generally to communicate with the mother and their children and maybe even trying to basically disappear,” attorney Lavi explained.

We should point out Simmons owes a considerable amount of back child support, some $16,000. We asked him how he let it get that high and he showed us the records from DHR dated back to 2009. They started him out some $7,000 in debt, and there were several periods of unemployment plus an injury that kept him off work for several months. Fact is, even at the 12% interest they're changing him, he's paid it down from a high of $24,000.

Statewide, unpaid child support amounts to over $3 billion. Even a fraction of that would go a long way towards providing for children who don't receive support from their parent.

DHR  doesn't have a staff of investigators who go out and look for the so-called “dead beat parents,” the men and women with no visible means of support, who seem to move around a lot. They have to rely on other means to find them. Their children often wind up relying heavily upon programs we used to refer to as welfare. But then you have guys like Simmons, who will admit he made some mistakes along the way but seems determined to turn things around. He's buying a house, holding down a job, and he used to have a bank account. Guys like him are easy to find. Easy targets.