A few years ago, Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts learned of a specialty court in Hamilton, Ohio, that had a new way of addressing the problem of flagrant non-support by non-custodial parents.
He visited Hamilton a couple of times, sitting in the courtroom to watch proceedings, and decided he wanted to replicate the work with Fayette District Judge T. Bruce Bell.
"We've got 17,000 active cases of child support in Lexington," Roberts said. "Out of that group, many of them have to be chased around to get child support paid. It is a monstrous iceberg, and we can't do it efficiently. No one can. There are new (cases) coming in every day."
And there are 5,000 cases in Fayette County alone of parents who are $5,000 or more in arrears. The total owed in child support is $60 million, he said.
If a parent is convicted of flagrant non-support, or of being behind in payments by $2,500 or more, that parent would have a felony record that would make it more difficult to find employment and therefore nearly impossible to make support payments.
That scenario helps no one.
So Roberts, Bell and several members of a support team created the Special Child Support Enforcement Court, which is similar in design to Drug Court.
Parents are given a choice of possibly being convicted of a felony or going to the specialty court, where they can get help dealing with any issues that keep them from fulfilling their obligations to their children.
If they choose the specialty court, they are assessed and then directed to programs that can eliminate certain issues, such as needing a GED, drug rehabilitation, or employability and vocational skills.
They also are assigned to a 16-week parenting class that includes homework.
"I was skeptical at first, but Larry Roberts twisted my arm," Bell said about being involved with the Fayette program.
Since the program started in July 2010, more than $100,000 has been collected and 16 parents, mostly fathers, have graduated from the program. Several more are in the pipeline.
"It is not a walk in the park," Bell said. "But we are more lenient than regular court. There comes a time, though, if there are no consequences, then the program fails."
Parents must sign a contract that says they will remain drug-free, come to court about three times a month and stay in touch with their caseworkers. And if they don't continue to make payments, they might be jailed and tried for non-support.
The biggest problem is employment. Tayna Fogle, re-entry specialist at Central Kentucky Career Center, and Dave Hammonds, employment advocate for the county attorney's office, work to find training and jobs for the parents.
Because many of the parents have little contact with their children, Beverly Carr, alcohol and drug coordinator with the county attorney's office, and Ralisha Howard of the adult probation office work with them to improve their parenting skills.
And Michael Dearing of the county attorney's office monitors their employment status and payments.
If parents complete the program, showing a history of employment and support payments for at least six months, the charges against them are reduced to misdemeanors and expunged from their records.
"That means they don't have a record," Roberts said. "There is no other program I know of in the country that is doing that."
Participants don't have to pay the arrearage in full at the time of graduation, but if they stop paying in the future, they will be brought back to court.
Dearing said he can't tell who will be successful and who will fail.
"It is just dumb luck," he said. "I've been wrong so many times."
Some of the parents who, on paper, looked doomed to fail have turned out to be the greatest success stories, he said.
Fewer than 45 participants have tried the program. About 15 have been kicked out, 16 have graduated, and the rest are in the program now.
Some of the parents could make their payments before court convenes, but "they love to come in and lay down that money," Fogle said. "It is about breaking that generational curse. They won't see their children come in here."
That is a major game-changer, Roberts said.
"I hope we get to the point that we have a full-time judge," he said, explaining that Bell supervises the speciality court only on Tuesday afternoons. Roberts hopes to be able to expand the program.
He also hopes the specialty court is selected to represent Lexington in vying for one of the Mayors Challenge grants sponsored by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Bloomberg Philanthropies. Five grants totaling $9 million will be given to eligible cities that produce "breakthrough solutions" to problems facing American cities.
"If we get that grant, we could turn this city upside down," Roberts said.