Hell to Pay

A child-support check promised by an ex-husband bounces, and the authorities go after the mother.

Flight attendant Joanne Berg-Goehl figured she'd hear from the Arapahoe County District Attorney's office about why her ex-husband's child-support payments had dropped off. Last year he was threatened with jail time if he didn't pay her $1,000 immediately.

Berg-Goehl got that money, thanks to a check processed by a company under contract to the state, but she had received little since then. So when a letter from the DA's office arrived on July 30, she thought she had her answer. Instead she found herself being dunned for the $1,000. Her ex-husband's check to the county bounced eleven months ago, and Arapahoe County, instead of going after him, now has come after her. The letter was coldly formal. "Enclosed please find payment coupons to repay the amount of $1,000 which was sent to you in error," the letter informed her. It was not signed, and no contact name was listed.

"They should go to him," Berg-Goehl says angrily. "I'll be damned if they're going to do this to me."

Many other public and private agencies that act as middlemen for child-support payments would not have treated her this way.

John Bernhart, child-support director for the Denver Department of Social Services, says that if his office were seeking payment on a bad check, "we would go back to the [person who wrote the check]."

"If he wrote us a bad check, he would have to pay," adds Sharon Sowder, who runs the Colorado office of the Child Support Assistance Network, a nationwide private collection agency. "We'd go after the person who wrote the check, absolutely." The idea of pursuing the custodial parent was news to her. "I never heard of that before," she says.

Sowder's boss, Denise Landers, says from the agency's Houston headquarters that when checks do bounce, "we immediately contact the non-custodial parent, and if he has a good reason, we put the check through again or we tell him to Fed Ex us a cashier's check or money order right now. Most of them make it up."

And what happens if the non-custodial parent doesn't make the check good? "We eat it," says Landers. "We're never going to go back to the custodial parent. Once I've sent it out, if there are any errors, that's our error, because we trusted the guy. Our job is to collect from the non-custodial parent."

Arapahoe County's child-support administrator, Cindy Koenigsfeld, is defensive about her office's handling of the case. Ironically, Arapahoe County DA Jim Peters and his office were recently lauded in the press for their "fast track" domestic-violence program, which requires both parties to appear in court the day after a domestic-violence arrest.

Koenigsfeld contends that her own office is understaffed but that it does a good job. And she defends her handling of Berg-Goehl's case, although she refuses to discuss details of how it was handled. "I don't think she's been poorly treated," says Koenigsfeld. "I understand why she's upset, but she's out there making it sound like we're doing awful things."

Koenigsfeld gets some backing from child-support attorney Steve Harhai. "Where should the responsibility lie if there's a bad check?" says Harhai. "There's no funded pool of money for that to come from. So if the custodial parent gets this notice, she's in much the same position as if he had sent her the check directly, only she finds out about it a little later. It's probably not an inappropriate thing to do to say, 'We sent the check on to you and it was no good, and we need it back.'"

But it's not as if situations like Berg-Goehl's are common. In Colorado last year, only one-tenth of one percent of child-support checks totaling $137 million bounced, says Darius Sams, program section chief of the state Division of Child Support Enforcement. Denise Landers estimates that her company comes across a dozen or so bad personal checks a year, about 1 out of every 250.

Koenigsfeld says that her office does pursue payment from non-custodial parents and that her office has no intention of seriously going after Berg-Goehl, despite the letter's ominous tone. "If she has no ability to pay," says Koenigsfeld, "that's fine."

But Berg-Goehl isn't mollified. "You still don't come to me," she says. "I'm the mother of these children, trying to make a living. If there's a grievance with somebody who wrote a bounced check, that person should be prosecuted."

Federal regulations require that child-support payments be disbursed within 48 hours of being received. It's inevitable that some checks won't have cleared before the payments are sent to the custodial parents. But most officials agree that within a few weeks--or a few months, at most--bad checks should be spotted. It took Arapahoe County eleven months to notify Berg-Goehl that there had been a problem with the check, and Koenigsfeld has no explanation for the delay.

However, Berg-Goehl's case is unusually complicated. The person who actually wrote the $1,000 check wasn't ex-husband Gary Goehl, who lives in Englewood. It was Goehl's onetime boss, lawyer Mark Anderson. In any case, the check satisfied the court, and Goehl's contempt citation was withdrawn. But then it was discovered that the check was bad, and the state sued Anderson.

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