The state for decades overstated legal ramifications in a document delivered to people behind on child-support payments, but it wasn’t until Greg Charping ended up in an emergency room with an emotional breakdown this year that things began to change.
Some might say the Upstate case resulted in a slight difference in wording. Words, however, do make a difference, especially in legal documents.
The S.C. Department of Social Services’ Child Support Enforcement Division, in a consent order approved this month, agreed to stop using deceptive language that made an administrative negotiation conference appear to be a court hearing with the possibility of contempt charges.
In an unusual twist, the division also agreed to pay S.C. Legal Services, which represented Charping, $10,000 to conduct training for DSS child support attorneys.
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Nobody wants to coddle people who don’t pay their required child support, said Kirby Mitchell, who represented Charping for S.C. Legal Services. But there are limits to how far enforcement officials can go, and the state for decades was teetering on that legal line, if not walking past it.
“We also represent people who receive child support, and we know how important it is,” Mitchell said. “But you can’t lie to people in legal documents.”
Charping didn’t set out to change the system. He had enough problems of his own. The Greer resident lost a job after nearly 18 years with General Electric. He drained his retirement savings, fell behind on all of his bills, including child-support payments, and sank into an emotional free-fall.
Then on March 11, 2011, a man who Charping thought was an appliance repairman knocked on his door and handed over government documents. They were from DSS, and they indicated he had a court date on April 1, 2011, for a hearing for not paying child support. It threatened contempt charges.
“It just floored me,” Charping recalled. “I went to pieces. I was terrified that they would put me in jail.
“I knew I was behind (on child-support payments), and I had contacted them and said I wanted to get things right.”
Charping said he has had severe emotional problems since being shot in what he described as an accident during his youth. “I’ve got eight bullet holes,” he said.
After he read the documents, he jumped in his car and started driving, not knowing where he was going. He was out of his anxiety medicine and didn’t know what to do. He ended up in the emergency room.
“I was scared to death,” he said.
But he didn’t need to be. His case was still several steps away from the threat of jail time. Though the document used the terms “hearing” and “court,” it only was requesting Charping meet with an attorney for the agency for a negotiation conference. No judge would be present, a requirement for a judicial hearing.
When Charping went to S.C. Legal Services for help, Mitchell was surprised by the wording of the summons. “I just thought it was a mistake and they accidentally sent this,” Mitchell said. “So I called DSS.”
DSS claimed the word “hearing” was appropriate for a negotiation conference, and the conference was scheduled for the Greenville County Family Court building. The agency had been using the same wording since 1990, and nobody had complained, according to the DSS response to the Charping lawsuit.
“That just shows (DSS) rarely gets challenged and they were doing things that weren’t right for a long time,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “It’s hard enough for people with low reading levels and a fear of the court, but then you have language that’s misleading.”
Berkowitz’s group, like S.C. Legal Services, is more likely to take the side of the parent seeking back child support, but “you have to balance that with the Constitution and due process.”
Mitchell sued DSS for frivolous litigation, and private attorney Stephen Henry filed a civil rights suit seeking damages for emotional harm. After first denying it had done anything wrong, DSS at a mediation conference last month agreed to an injunction against the use of the documents.
DSS also agreed to pay the $2,070 cost of the mediation process and $10,000 to S.C. Legal Services to set up two full-day seminars for DSS child support attorneys.
William C. Smith, an assistant general counsel at DSS, told S.C. Lawyers Weekly that the wording was a “systemic issue” and has been corrected.
As part of the agreement, Charping agreed to drop his civil rights claim. After his trip to the emergency room, he was granted a disability claim because of his stress disorder. Now his child support funds are deducted from a disability check each month.
“I did what I thought in my heart was the right thing to do,” Charping said of filing the suit and eventually dropping his personal claim. “I couldn’t imagine that other people went through the same thing as me or more.”