[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The statistician who provided the statistic used in the introduction to this story now says that number is inaccurate. We said, "In Connecticut, motions to modify [child support or alimony] payments filed by people divorced or divorcing grew by more than 50 percent last year." According to judicial statistician Greg Pac, those motions increased by less than 1 percent, in all family cases. However, Family Court judges and other court workers continue to report pressure in the system from what they believe is the increased volume and complexity of cases in which people have to renegotiate their court-ordered support payments.]
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Family courts around the country are reporting an increase in the number of people who can no longer afford to pay their child support or alimony. In Connecticut, motions to modify those payments filed by people divorced or divorcing, grew by more than 50 percent last year. Kate Davidson of member station WNPR spent some time at the family court in Hartford, and she sent this report.
KATE DAVIDSON: The Honorable Constance Epstein starts her day early.
(Soundbite of door opening)
DAVIDSON: It's a Wednesday, the day for miscellaneous family arguments, including requests to lower support payments. She flips through her caseload.
Judge CONSTANCE EPSTEIN (Family Court, Hartford, Connecticut): There are about 90 to 100 cases on the calendar that are marked ready for today.
WERTHEIMER: Here's the kind of case from a recent Wednesday that Judge Epstein is seeing more and more. The plaintiff was a man who used to make a lot money and used to pay his ex-wife a lot of alimony, almost $700 a week. Then he lost his job. He came to court asking the judge's permission to pay just $100 a week.
Judge EPSTEIN: The despair in his face was absolutely amazing. In fact, when I started to question him, it was almost as if he couldn't answer the questions because his eyes were just so filled with tears and he was so choked up with emotion.
DAVIDSON: And when parents can't pay and children hang in the balance, it's especially hard.
Judge EPSTEIN: Both parties are desperate and there's not much we can do about it. We used to be able to order those people to go and make a job search, and we still do, but now they fill out a million forms and they still can't get a job.
Mr. RICK ZANTO: I had no idea it was going to be this difficult.
DAVIDSON: That's Rick Zanto. He's 44, divorced with two kids and a similar story. He started earning six figures in his 30s. Last spring he was laid off from his job as a middle manager at the Hartford Life Insurance Company.
Mr. ZANTO: You know, I'm at the point now where I've been looking for nine months. I already lowered what my goals were, as far as employment, once. I've got to take another step back and see if I've got to go down two notches on the food chain to get re-employed. It may mean a $40,000 pay cut.
DAVIDSON: Zanto used to pay about $2,000 a month in child support and alimony.
Mr. ZANTO: I never thought I'd be on unemployment in my life. But the maximum benefit on unemployment would not even cover alimony and child support, nevermind paying rent and my own expenses. So there's no way I would be able to swing those numbers.
DAVIDSON: Now, with court approval, Zanto says he pays about a third of his unemployment in child support. And in alimony he pays just one dollar a year. Giovanni Pagon(ph) and his wife Marcella are still in the process of getting divorced. Pagon hadn't even finalized his child support before he lost his job trimming trees.
Mr. GIOVANNI PAGON: I lost that in January. It's really slow in the winter, especially nowadays. And they couldn't keep all of us. So they laid about three of us off, I was one of them.
DAVIDSON: Now that he's unemployed and living with his parents, he says there's no way he can pay his presumptive child support. But he says he can spend more time looking after his son while Marcella works.
Mr. PAGON: Oh, I got the best kid. He's three years old. So he's been through a lot, I've been through a lot with him. My pride and joy.
DAVIDSON: Just this week Giovanni and Marcella Pagon met with the court's family relations counselors and agreed that neither one will pay child support right now. That keeps them out of the actual courtroom for the time being - and that may be a good thing. Connecticut's chief family judge, Linda Monroe, says some judges are finding it difficult, if not, impossible to hear all the support motions scheduled on a given day. And she doesn't want to see cases get delayed.
Judge LINDA MONROE (Chief Family Judge, Connecticut): People who may have work are going to miss multiple days off from work to get their matter heard. The people who are hiring someone to watch the kids are going to have to pay for a second day of that. If they have lawyers, they're paying for a lawyer to sit around and wait their turn.
DAVIDSON: And those, she says, are just the economic costs. Judge Monroe says if the trends continues, courts may have to adjust, designating less time for trial or adding whole new calendar days just to hear child support and alimony motions. If Connecticut does that, it won't be the first state, Minnesota already beat it to the punch. For NPR News, I'm Kate Davidson in Hartford.
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