SPRINGFIELD, MO—By most measures, Mary is getting her life back on track after years of struggling. Two years ago the mother of two obtained a divorce and moved to rural Missouri to start a new life.

Although the court ordered joint physical custody, Mary has not seen her children because her ex-husband refused to abide by the visitation schedule. Mary was ordered to pay child support; however, she did not have the financial resources to make those payments. Eventually, Mary was charged with a child support misdemeanor.

This past year Mary’s child support issues were resolved thanks to a new pilot program aimed at helping struggling parents faced with non-support criminal charges. The program, “Helping Parents Help Children,” is a collaboration among Legal Services of Southern Missouri and the Missouri State Public Defenders Office. To date, six men and three women have been referred to the program. The pilot project focuses on non-support criminal cases in Barry, Christian, Dade, Greene, Lawrence, Stone and Taney Counties. More times than not, the Public Defenders’ clients had no criminal history, nor contact with the criminal system other than through their inability to pay child support. Typically the clients were employed full-time, but did not make enough money to pay multiple child support orders. A child support modification may have been a solution, but they often were not eligible for a modification via the Family Support Division within the Missouri Department of Social Services for two or three years, and to hire a private attorney was not economically feasible. Even though the child support order should be modified, the arrearage continued to increase.

“We are honored to partner with the Missouri Public Defenders on this project. Our goal is to help these people put their life on a different course,” said Douglas B. Kays, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Missouri. “Both of our agencies struggle with financial and human resources in meeting the needs of our clients. Through this partnership, we are able to resolve the child support civil case which resolves the criminal case,” added Mr. Kays.

The Helping Parents Help Children pilot project covers the 31st, 38th, and 39th judicial circuits plus Dade County. The project is utilizing members of Legal Services of Southern Missouri’s pro bono panel to handle these cases free of charge. To qualify for this project the applicant must not have significant felony criminal record nor prior history of criminal or civil contempt issues involving child support arrearages; the applicant must have a valid reason for non-payment of child support such as disability; job loss through no fault of the payor; severe health issues of payor or an immediate family member; default judgment involving special circumstances; the child(ren) at issue are now in payor’s custody or are emancipated; has a valid reason and is a victim of a natural disaster like a tornado or earthquake; and Family Support Division modification is not an option. All referrals to the Helping Parents Help Children must come from the Missouri Public Defender system or a Prosecuting Attorney.

“We are looking at individuals with civil issues, which if addressed, would resolve their criminal case,” said Kays. “These individuals cannot afford to retain an attorney to address their family law cases and that is where Legal Services can help. To date, under this project we have placed three cases with area attorneys working pro bono,” added Kays.

“We see this project as a win for all involved. By resolving these cases it helps the courts from being bogged down with child support contempt issues. It helps lessen the caseload for the Public Defender system. It helps protect the client and his/her ability to be hired for certain jobs which would not be an option with a criminal record. It helps Legal Services of Southern Missouri further its mission in providing civil legal aid to the poor,” noted Kays.