The recession is creating a crisis for the courts and for families dealing with child support.
Parents who have faithfully kept up with their child support are falling behind and flooding the courts with requests for help, so Hennepin County officials are taking steps to keep the problem from getting worse.
In a conference room in Minneapolis, about a dozen parents sit hunched over thick stacks of government child support forms. At an overhead projector, attorney Virginia Kuberski explains to these parents how to convince a court to reduce their mandatory child support payments.
"You've got to prove that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since whatever was happening and what is happening right now," she says. "What does it cost for you to live each month?"
Percyell Davis, a father living in Minneapolis, says he is here because, like thousands of other people in the state recently, he lost his job and owes thousands of dollars in overdue child support.
"I haven't been able to pay for a year. I'm like $20,000 in debt in a year," he says. "It's literally been one year."
Right now, he's on the hook for about $2,000 a month but he's barely earning half that -- in a good month. After he was laid off from his union construction job, Davis managed to keep up with his child support with the help of unemployment checks. When they ran out, he had no work, and he couldn't make the payments anymore.
Davis says the situation is complicating already strained relationships.
"It's very stressful for them too," he says, "I mean, they are not getting the money they're owed and I can't give them the money they are owed and I'm getting stressed out because now I'm in debt and it's kind of like a cycle."
Davis says getting his payments lowered would help him resume the payments he wants to be able to make. Attorney Kuberski says the situations Davis is in is all too common because people wait too long to seek help.
"The court cannot modify retroactively so if there is a change, don't wait for a few months down the road to see if something gets better," she says. "Come right now! Arrears just keep accruing and it keeps accruing so if you wait you're just digging yourself into the hole."
The number of people in that hole is growing and so are requests from people looking to reduce their child support payments.
Hennepin County judges heard more than 3,000 modification requests since this time last year -- up 44 percent from two years ago. And county officials say that doesn't reflect the full size of the problem because not all requests go before a judge.
The county had more than 56,000 child support cases in 2008. About 34 percent of non-custodial parents do not support their children financially, leaving an average of more than $3.5 million a month in unpaid child support.
Hennepin County officials would like to see even more people seeking help, to head off future problems, so the county is reaching out to the parents of about 2,200 kids -- parents who rely on unemployment benefits to pay child support.
Child support program manager Casey White says that's because many people with a solid history of paying are reaching the end of their benefits.
"These are individuals who have paid -- and paid, and paid, and paid -- and now, through no fault of their own, they are just getting swept up in the recession and the economy," she says, "and things have thrown the whole family into turmoil."
White says the stakes are high for parents who don't pay: they can have their drivers or occupational licenses suspended, and have their wages taken. Such penalties will only make it harder for people to get back on their feet and pay off their full child support obligations.
Hennepin County 4th District Family Court Judge Tanja Manrique says the recession is wreaking havoc on families and their problems are increasingly showing up in the courts.
"It's about families who are being strained economically due to the challenges of getting a job and keeping a job, and there are housing challenges out there," she says. "Stable and affordable housing is not as readily available in this community as it used to be."
Manrique says she worries that the upswing in filings for child support modifications will only increase the court's already growing backlog, forcing desperate families to wait even longer for their requests to be heard.
Leaving the child support workshop, Davis says he hopes a family court judge will reduce his payments temporarily.
"My drivers license is suspended so it's hard to get to work and to get the kids, so I just have to get it taken care of," he says.
Davis says he plans to pay his full child support as soon as he gets back on his feet, but he knows it's going to take years.