Domestic office improves score for children

One of the most successful at collecting child support in the state, the Lycoming County domestic relations office is seeing more cases settled outside of court since enacting new goals to help defendants make payments.

When Stephanie Tribble took over as director of the office in July, she implemented a new informal way for the county’s enforcement officers to speak with defendants about why they aren’t making payments.

“Even though we are there for the benefit of collecting payments for the plaintiff, and ultimately the children, we are also there for the defendant to enable them to meet their court-ordered obligations,” Judge Joy R. McCoy, administrative judge for the office, said.

During the enforcement conference, officers speak with the defendant about obstacles such as possible drug or alcohol issues, if they are working or if they have problems getting to work. The officers have methods to help the defendant such as making a referral to West Branch for a drug and alcohol assessment or to a work center for a job search.

“We are trying to work with them at our informal level first to make referrals to other outside agencies to assist them in correcting whatever the issues are that is (keeping) them from paying routinely,” Tribble said.

The office has administrative remedies like intercepting lottery winnings and settlement and workers compensation claims and by issuing wage garnishes through sources like unemployment, Social Security and retirement. Having conversations with the defendants on how they can stick to their payments before using these methods has been a focus of the office.

“We are trying to change that black cloud that is associated with domestics,” Tribble said. “The vision that I see is to really be working with them at that informal level.”

If a defendant still hasn’t managed to begin paying child support, their officer will now have a broad report pointing out all of the efforts made to get the defendant on track to give to McCoy if the case makes it to a trial.

Every Tuesday morning the courthouse holds domestic relations court. Defendants are assigned a public defender and have the opportunity to speak before court begins. For many, the defendant and the attorney will come to an agreement with the enforcement officer and won’t need to have a hearing before McCoy, she said.

“Having that enforcement conference really picks up some of the payments that they would have walked in and reached an agreement and paid anyway, which is nice,” McCoy said. “It frees up court time.”

Creating the conferences was difficult at first, according to McCoy, who said the change in focus was huge for the staff of the office.

“There have been a lot of new things thrown at them,” she said. “They’ve all taken it in stride and have stepped up to the plate.”

The office’s ability to stay above the average percentile in the state’s indicators proves that the changes have been successful, according to Tribble.

“In terms of current collections, which is the month to month support that someone would owe, we are well above the state average,” Tribble said, noting that statistics showing the state average for collections is 84.40 percent while the county’s is 85.27 percent. The county also is above the state average in creating support orders for cases, establishing paternity, having defendants pay back child support and establishing and enforcing medical support for children.