Its not your fathers FOC

June 3, 2011
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After years of being battered, the Kent County Friend of the Court has turned things around. The FOC has rebranded itself by reaching out into the community, talking with clients and forming a closer working relationship with county prosecutors and circuit court judges.

“I can remember when I first started, people called us bounty hunters because all we would do is go out and arrest people, bring them in and get the money. But now there has definitely been a change. Before, you never heard about the Friend of the Court’s office doing a lot of community outreach and answering people’s questions out there,” said Terry Novakoski, who directs the county’s FOC.

“We’re trying to give ourselves a different image than what we had. We’re still going to get someone arrested if they should be arrested. But more times than not, we can avoid arrests by having someone communicate with us,” he added.

The effort at communicating must be paying off. The latest numbers rank the FOC as first among the state’s 11 largest counties for collecting 72 percent of current and 61 percent of past due child-support payments during the second quarter of this year. In 2008, the office collected nearly $100 million and about $90 million last year.

“There are a lot of factors that go into that. John Cole, my predecessor, set us on the right path on a lot of this stuff and about looking at those comparisons for where we’re at and where we need to be going. Jack Roedema, the circuit court administrator, has been very supportive, along with our judges and our local attorneys,” said Novakoski. “We’re looking at change. We’re not the same old Friend of the Court that we used to be. Things are a little bit different now. Our prosecutors’ office is a strong contributor.”

The attorneys that work for Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth establish paternity and court orders, while the FOC is responsible for making collections. “Sometimes we are judged by what makes us most noticeable to the public, and that is child support,” said Novakoski.

Novakoski started with the office in 1978 as an arresting officer, took over the director’s position in March 2010, and offered high praise for his staff.

“From our previous year, we were down 3.9 percent in 2010. But the state as a whole was down 5.5 percent,” he said of collections.

Also, Novakoski said the total amount of uncollected child support in the county has fallen. It dropped from $419 million in 2008 to $386 million last year. “The sad and disturbing fact is, statewide that amount of uncollected support is $9 billion, and nationally the number is close to $110 billion,” he said.

Even though economic conditions are better here than in other counties in the state, Novakoski said the economy has been especially hard on residents whose income is near and below the poverty level. A national study showed that 70 percent of the county’s $386 million, or $270 million, in uncollected child-support payments is owed by Kent’s poorest residents.

“That’s quite a burden on the backs of people who earn less than $10,800 a year. It’s tough going for them. We know that people who earn $10,000 have difficulty in finding steady employment. Sure the economy is down, but I think the economy is affecting people in poverty worse right now,” he said.

People who need to talk with the FOC office find doing so to be a bit foreign. Because they really can’t go anywhere else to do that, Novakoski has taken his office to them. “What we’re doing is we’re going out into the community. So far, in the last year, we’ve done seven community outreaches to different organizations that asked us to do those,” he added.

“They set it up, and we just show up and do a two-hour presentation. We also talk on a case-by-case basis. We go back to the office, do the research, get back to them and let them know how we can help them.”

The caseload for the county’s FOC is expected to reach 40,465 this year. A year ago, it was 40,660. Two years ago, it was 39,851. Novakoski said his staff sees the individuals they meet with as clients, people who aren’t really any different than themselves. “We pay bills. We have hardships. We have kids. We’re not so outside of our clients that we know things so much better,” he said.

The agency’s customer service department answered 115,522 calls last year and expects to answer 108,000 this year. Another 32,000 voicemails are expected to be left this year, the same number as last year. The department also received 72,733 written inquires last year and had only 34 grievances filed in 2010.

The FOC’s budget this year is roughly $9.1 million, with $7.4 million going to personnel costs. The agency has 98 on staff, down from 104 two years ago. Last year, the department collected $10.41 for every $1 it spent, which placed it fourth among the state’s counties. The local office led all the state’s larger counties in collecting back child-support payments in 2010 with nearly a 70 percent success rate. FOC had 35,137 cases in arrears last year; it expects that number to rise to 36,000 this year.

Novakoski said he and his staff are excited about the future, even though he admitted they’re facing a number of what he called “huge challenges.” At the top of his lengthy list is modifying court orders.

“Right sizing the orders has to happen. Child-support orders should be modified based on someone’s ability to pay. At times, they would have an ability to pay a higher rate and then something changes in their lives. But they don’t come to us to get those orders changed,” he said.

“Sometimes they run away from us. Sometimes they’re so stressed they can’t do anything about it. So we need to change those court orders. We need to right size those court orders, and that is one of the major things we need to do.”

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