Focus, Government, and Law

Friend of the Court working to improve client relations

August 31, 2012
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Inundated is an appropriate word to describe the amount of communications the Kent County Friend of the Court receives on an annual basis. Over the last two years, the agency has answered more than 210,000 phone calls and received more than 194,000 written correspondences.

This year the calls are expected to number about 85,000, and mailings are projected to total 104,700. Both numbers are down because the FOC has been pushing its community outreach initiative and has been meeting publicly with clients at nine different venues on a regular basis for more than a year now.

The agency also has shifted to electronic communication, and at the end of April it had about 5,800 e-mail addresses in its system. “We are promoting the use of electronic mail to increase customer service and satisfaction along with reducing our cost of mailing and hard copy materials,” said Terry Novakoski, FOC director, to the county’s Legislative Committee.

“We are looking at ways to improve customer service,” he said, noting they send out a newsletter.

“I think you’re doing a fantastic job, especially with your community outreach,” said County Commissioner Candace Chivis.

The FOC is part of the 17th Circuit Court and responsible for enforcing domestic relations orders coming from the court’s Family Division for such things as divorce, paternity, child and family support and interstate actions. It is a state-empowered agency with 97 employees and a budget of just under $9 million. About $7.3 million of that amount covers personnel costs in the labor-intensive work the agency does enforcing court orders.

The 2012 budget is down by roughly $200,000 from the $9.1 million it had last year. State funding fell from $6.2 million in 2011 to $6 million this year, while the county kept its funding level stable near the $2 million-mark.

The FOC averages about 40,000 cases annually and measures its performance on federal standards. The outcome of those measurements has put the agency at the top statewide.

The office finished first last year in relation to other county agencies in establishing paternity at a 97.8 percent rate, in current collections at 72.6 percent and in collecting back payments at 71.1 percent. The FOC was fourth among counties in cost effectiveness as it collected $9.48 for every dollar it spent, and was fifth in establishing orders at 79.7 percent.

“These are strong indicators for us. We compare ourselves to the top 10 counties in the state. We lead the 10 counties,” said Novakoski, who took over the director’s position two years ago after serving in the office since 1978. “Two years ago, our collections were $20 million. In 2011, they were $20 million.”

The FOC has been able to reduce the uncollected amount of support over the past few years from $419 million to $380 million. “Our goal is to right size the money,” said Novakoski.

Novakoski added that often the support some are ordered to pay is out of line with their income, and adjustments have to be made. In the past, an individual who was behind in family support would have a 4 percent interest charge added twice a year to their delinquent payments, which put many even further behind. Those charges have been dropped.

Novakoski said uncollected support has reached $110 billion nationwide, and a recent study revealed those with an annual average income of around $10,800 were responsible for 70 percent of that amount. He added the FOC has begun trying to help those who are unemployed and behind in their support find work and is collaborating with a couple of local organizations to do that.

The local FOC is one of only two counties in Michigan that has a Citizens Advisory Committee, which has nine members and is chaired by Judy Ostrander. Ostrander has been practicing family law more than 20 years and heads the Ostrander Law Offices, which she opened in 1992. She also sits on the executive committee for family law at the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

The agency meets with the citizens committee every other month. The committee has a grievance subcommittee that helps to oversee complaints made against the FOC, an oversight arm few Michigan agencies offer. Oakland is the only other county statewide that has an advisory group for its FOC.

“The other counties did away with their Citizens Advisory Committees,” said Novakoski.

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