This month, parents who are behind on child support have the chance to catch up.
The Child Support Division of the Department of Human Services will grant amnesty and return suspended driver's licenses to anyone who sets up a payment plan. People are not required to make a down payment. For every $2 a person pays towards past-due support, the agency will kick in $1 towards accrued interest or state-owed money.
State-owed money can result when a custodial parent goes on welfare because a noncustodial parent does not pay support. The noncustodial parent is required to reimburse the government later.
Jim Fleming, the director of the division, said he wants to "give obligors a fresh start." For some people, their debt is so high, they "cannot afford to surface."
More than 7,000 parents owe more than $10,000 in past-due support, Fleming said. Debts often date back to when a person was less responsible or even incarcerated. Some abscond because they are afraid to face the mountain of debt and a court warrant.
“We’re not trying to be forgiving or condoning of their arrearage,” Fleming said. “We’re just trying to do something about it.”
The agency sent letters to all debtors who have outstanding warrants telling them about the amnesty. He said he received several phone calls and walk-ins within a day of announcing the program.
He has also received some criticism from paying parents who think the program is unfair. They've asked why delinquent parents should get a break.
The main goal of the program is to get delinquent parents into payment plans, which the division says are effective at increasing support. In the first six months after signing a plan, parents paid an average of 56 percent more, according to an analysis of plans signed from Nov. 1, 2013, through Oct. 31.
Similar programs around the country have successfully incentivized parents to pay more by compromising on their debts.
The division typically motivates payment plans by threatening to take away driver's licenses. Currently, more than 2,000 people have their licenses suspended for failing to pay child support, Fleming said. More than 600 have warrants for their arrest.
Kristin Redmann, an attorney for parents paying and receiving child support, said she believes the amnesty program is helpful, but it does not address some of the factors that pull people into debt.
Some people don’t want to pay child support, and do not care that debt is accruing, she said. But others get laid off and fall into debt while they try to modify their obligations. Recently, she has seen people lose high-paying oil jobs and need to hire a lawyer to adjust their payments.
The division reviews obligations once every three years if a person does not request changes sooner.
Fleming acknowledged at a recent Judiciary Committee meeting that the agency will need to make adjustments for people who lost oil patch jobs.
In North Dakota, $259 million is owed in child support debt. By comparison, $158 million is disbursed to parents each year.
Fleming said 74 percent of noncustodial parents were compliant with their child support debts last year. This is the fourth highest rate in the nation.
The division will assess the amnesty program at the end of the month.