(BAY MINETTE, Ala.) - Thousands of families in our area are wondering when the next child support check will come. For many parents, the answer is never. More than $200 million is owed to families just in Mobile and Baldwin counties alone. The system is backlogged with cases where parents dodge payments by skipping town, who move from job to job making wage garnishment nearly impossible, and who have the money but are so angry at their ex, they just won't pay. All the while, the children are the ones who suffer.
"I barely got by. I barely got by," said Wendee Bradshaw.
Wendee left her ex-husband, Stephen, 17 years ago. Her boys were just one and three at the time. Stephen was supposed to pay $224 a month in child support, but the checks never came. Wendee found herself alone and overwhelmed.
"A lot of anger. A lot of it was financial about food, having to come up with what you're going to feed your children. But then at the same time, trying to keep a positive attitude for your boys so they don't feel the stresses you do," said Wendee. "And at night you go in your room and cry."
Wendee managed to make ends meet, without Stephen's help, mainly by cutting corners. She bought few clothes for her boys and rarely took them to the doctor or the dentist. Over time and working with the state, Wendee has managed to get a small fraction of what's she's owed, but to date, Stephen still owes her more than $16,000.
"You weren't even there for them as a father. The least you could do is send money to help pay for their upbringing," said Wendee.
She's far from alone, just in Baldwin County there are 5,700 hundred cases DHR and the District Attorney's Office are handling.
"We have 200 on a docket every week. You know, we're going through that many cases trying to get someone to pay their child support," said Director of the Child Support Division Andrea Chastang.
Monica Pierce's ex-husband Jimmy Roberson was on the docket last week. He was a no show. Monica says that's about par for the course.
"When it's school time. I have to do it all by myself. When it's Christmas time and birthdays, I do it all by myself," said Pierce. "And it makes me mad that I have to come up here and let somebody else make him take care of his kids when he should do it anyway."
Pierce says Roberson owes her nearly $14,000 in child support for their two boys.
"Take care of your kids. If you can't take care of them, don't make them. I didn't make them by myself. I shouldn't have to take care of them by myself," said Pierce.
"I've had custodial parents call and just cry on the phone, they're like I can't make it," said Chastang.
Chastang is in court every week fighting to get parents to pay up and has seen every trick in the book.
"They're hopping from job to job to job. They work for cash. They work under the table. You can't send an income deduction order for that. I've got guys that will quit work so they won't have to pay. As soon as that pay check deduction order hits their paycheck, they're like I'm not doing this," said Chastang.
Many parents are found in contempt of court for not paying. Some are even indicted and criminally prosecuted, like Arthur Little. He's currently in jail on a non-support charge. His ex-wife says at one time, he owed $40,000 in child support. Now, she says it's closer to $11,000.
But Baldwin County District Attorney Hallie Dixon says criminal non-support cases are difficult to prosecute.
"We have to prove that they can pay. Not only that they're supposed to, but they literally have the money to pay. We have to prove that it's an intentional non-support of the child," said Dixon.
Kenneth Shiver was indicted for criminal non-support in November. His ex-wife says he owes her roughly $19,000 in child support.
"We're only using criminal non-support where really ever other effort has just not worked," said Dixon.
It's a long, slow legal battle thousands of parents are all too familiar with, a losing battle so far for Wendee, Pierce and many other parents in the system.
"I would love for all deadbeat dads to understand that it's not for me. It's for the money we've spent for your children. We did not make these children on our own," said Wendee.
District Attorney Hallie Dixon says she would like the county to establish a work release program where dead beat parents would report to jail at night and during the day, work off the money they owe. One problem, Dixon says, is getting businesses on board. Dixon says she'd like to have this in place by the end of the year.