Suit seeks refund of child support
Mother stripped of her parental rights was ordered to pay when she shouldn’t have.
SMITHFIELD Locked in a filing cabinet in the Johnston County courthouse is a judge’s order that would have spared Rebecca Jones about $19,000 in child support she has paid for children she couldn’t rear.
Without her knowledge, a judge in 2001 took her parental rights. His ruling should’ve ended her duty to pay. The rule – no rights, no responsibility – has been state law since about 1969. Instead, $300 of Jones’ monthly income was garnished for more than six years.
Now Jones, 36, wants it back. She also wants the state to fix a system she thinks is defrauding parents like her.
Jones’ attorneys have filed a lawsuit in Johnston County, asking a judge to order the state to account for all parents who have paid child support despite having lost parental rights. They’ve also asked the judge to force the courts to open their files and list all parents stripped of their rights.
“This is about stopping a wrong,” said Ron Trimyer Jr., one of Jones’ attorneys in Smithfield. The lawsuit targets the state Department of Health and Human Services, Johnston County, the private attorneys who represent the county’s child support enforcement agency and the company hired to collect payments.
The defendants asked that the suit be dismissed, but Johnston County Judge Tom Lock ruled Friday to let it proceed.
Mark Payne, Johnston County attorney, agreed Jones shouldn’t have been ordered to pay, but doesn’t think the county was negligent. A spokesperson for the state Health and Human Services Department declined to comment.
Jones’ lawsuit challenges a system that works mostly in private. Orders terminating a parent’s rights are guarded so that even officials working for county child support enforcement agencies can’t get them. That secrecy is designed to protect parents who have given up a child for adoption, as well as those who lose rights after investigations. A judge must grant permission to look at the records.
In addition, there is no central database or master list of parents stripped of their rights, state court and social services officials say.
Payne, the county attorney, said he thinks the state should create such a database.
Timothy Starling of Wayne County accumulated seven arrest orders for failure to pay child support. Trimyer, who also represents Starling, said Starling had insisted to child support enforcers he’d lost his parental rights and shouldn’t owe – his child has been adopted. An officer told Starling that didn’t matter, Trimyer said.