SPECIAL REPORT: Deadbeats Exposed - Time to Pay - WFLA News Channel 8

SPECIAL REPORT: Deadbeats Exposed - Time to Pay

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TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) -

While single mothers and fathers often work two jobs and struggle to raise their children on one income, the other parent is sometimes absent in their children's lives. If that's not bad enough, occasionally they offer no support whatsoever.

The child support system is supposed to prevent that. Yet countless so-called deadbeat moms and dads continue to live their lives without financially supporting the life they brought into this world.

After weeks of investigating, we found parents who owe unbelievable amounts of back child support. We found several people who owe in excess of $30,000.

The Carter County Sheriff's Department says Raymond Hyatt owes $55,266.69 in back child support. Court records out of Washington County, TN show Eugene Russaw, Jr. owes $43,561.24.

These are just a couple of parents who have civil warrants out for their arrest. Judges issued the warrants for those out of Washington County in the last few weeks.

At the end of the day, it's the children losing out. Several area agencies would love to get these people behind bars so they can recoup some of the money for their kids.

"I do know specific cases where the child is greatly in need of those funds just to be able to have a normal life," Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes said. "It seems that a lot of these folks always find money for smokes or they sometimes find money for beer and all these other things, but they can't pay their child support. "

Since our first commercial promoting this special Community Watchdog report aired, two of the people featured in that commercial have been arrested. The Sullivan County Sheriff's Office says Randall Mallett, who owes $34,000, turned himself in Tuesday. Deputies say he had an outstanding warrant dating back to August 2011. The Carter County Sheriff's Department says deputies picked up Melissa Carr, who owes $30,000, Tuesday too.

Gina Jennings knows how it feels to be the other parent. She is the proud mother of an 11 year-old boy. Her son is a typical fifth grader. However, at no fault of his own, he has an unfair disadvantage. That disadvantage brings his single mother to tears. She says his dad doesn't act like one.

"There's no really, no excuse," Jennings said of their situation. "It's his loss, because he's missing out on a wonderful child."

Jennings' 10-year marriage with Daniel Jennings ended in divorce in 2010. Since then, Gina Jennings says she's been to child support court roughly a dozen times. She does not enjoy those court dates. After all, after three years of court, she doesn't have much to show for it.

"I hate going to court," Jennings said. "You leave there just furious. It's the same thing over and over and over. You sit down, then you wait your turn to go, then, (Daniel will) say, 'Well, I don't have a job.'"

Over the years, court records reveal Daniel Jennings has only paid around $1,000 in child support. Today he still owes his ex-wife more than $4,300, according to those records. Every week that passes, that number gets even higher.

It's become so bad, even Daniel's own father has had enough.

"We're raising (his son) while he's out partying and having a good time," Eddie Jennings said. "It's real depressing. He don't want to pay nothing."

And they're not just mad at him. They're also mad at the courts.

"The system don't work," Gina Jennings said.

Third Judicial District Child Support Magistrate Pajan Cox-Wilhoite disagrees.

"The family system is broken," the magistrate said. "It's distressing to me to know that when I marry someone and I've married a few couples and I enjoy doing that, half of those people aren't going to be married in five years. It's heartbreaking and it makes me angry. The children are being neglected."

In her 25 years as a child support magistrate, she says her caseload has tripled. Meanwhile, she's watched the traditional family slowly disappear.

"I have women who have four and five kids with four and five different men," she said. "The most egregious case was a man who had 17 children with eight different women."

A deadbeat parent only steps in front of her if he or she is the worst of the worst. She describes that person as someone who doesn't make any effort.

"If you refuse to look for work, just will not cooperate and don't seem to care that you have this obligation for your children, then (I send you to) jail," she said.

Still, for her jail is a last report. As long as people make an effort to pay, look for a job or try to get their GED, she's willing to give them a chance.

Prosecutors say they're more successful when the courts encourage the two sides to work out an agreement and explain why it's so important to pay before it gets to the judge.

"What you want them to do is rearrange their priorities, so that paying child support is their number one priority, it's the first bill that they pay when they get their paycheck." Third Judicial District Child Support Enforcement Assistant District Attorney Tina Ailshie said. "Before they put gas in their own car, before they buy food for themselves, we want to make sure they pay their child support first."

Ailshie admits it's not always that easy, especially when you're dealing with two things near and dear to people's hearts: kids and money.

"It may take a while to rearrange someone's priorities and a lot of times you just have to keep working with them and working with them and hope that once they get a job, they'll do everything they can to hang on to it," Ailshie said.

Using that system, out of the nearly $15 million in court-ordered child support last year, the Third Judicial District collected more than $9 million, a 62.5% collection rate, Child Support Enforcement Director Gloria Neeley said.

According to Neeley, that's the third best rate in the state, something she is proud of. Neeley says those number prove there are more good outcomes than bad ones.

"I'm proud of that," Neeley said. "Not everybody's a bad apple."

Neeley is such a believer in this system she has banned the word "deadbeat" from the office. She says it's derogatory and doesn't help encourage people to do right. She is not the only one who feels good about their efforts.

"I do believe that it's working," Ailshie said of the court system. "It has its flaws. Of course they all do, but we are blessed here to have a magistrate."

"Unequivocally, we're making progress," Cox-Wilhoite said. "It's never going to be a perfect system, because we're dealing with broken families."

Unfortunately, Jennings hasn't seen that success. So far, the system has failed her and her son. Recently, the courts reduced he ex's payments to just $60 a week. Even then, she says he's still not paying.

"They let him get by with this, because they're not making him pay," she said. "Do I want to go in there and sit side-by-side with them, just so he can laugh, because he doesn't have to pay anything? No, I don't want to do that. Every time you go it's the same thing. Nothing's in the favor for the one who's trying to do right. I just think both parents should have to support their child."

For her, it's not about the money. It's about the principle. Her next court date is in June. She can only hope next time she'll be one of the success stories.

"I know people that their kids are grown adults now and they still haven't received the child support they were owed, so (court) didn't change anything," Jennings said. "I guess you can hope."

As for her ex, Daniel Jennings said he's having trouble finding a job, because he's a felon. He says he spent almost half of the last three years in prison. He says that's partly why he's so far behind on his payments. However, that's not his son's fault. He admits he brought it on himself. Still, he says he's committed to making things right eventually.

"My goal is to get a job and pay my child support," Jennings said. "I'm not avoiding it. I'm trying."

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