POSTED ON DECEMBER 26, 2012:
The Greater Good
Program helps noncustodial dads find work
He's not especially apologetic.
"I understand I should take responsibility of the child that I had," said Harry Byerman, 56. "But she, from the beginning, the lady I was with, the only thing she wanted out of our relationship was a child."
After 28 years, his child support debt has grown to about $20,000 -- mostly interest, he said. "After she had the child support kind of coming after me, well, I was rebellious," Byerman said, his explanation for shirking what the law says is his financial obligation.
For about seven years, Michael Grant, now a court liaison with Oklahoma Child Support Services, worked in enforcement, tracking down men like Byerman (and just a few women). Court penalties for nonpayment in Oklahoma include the revoking of a driver's license, as well as jail.
With time, a few things have changed for both men. Grant's job now is to offer services to those who are way behind on payments, part of an emphasis by the state that includes a new pilot program in Tulsa devoting more resources to helping men like Byerman find jobs.
Byerman, now married and raising two teenagers, said he's grateful for the assistance. "For people that are in my position, you know, it is a tremendous help," he said.
The shift in perspective can be dramatic. Grant said that when he was working in enforcement, "I can assure you, if a guy wasn't paying his child support I wasn't thinking about why he wasn't paying his child support," he said. "Now that I'm on the other side of the fence and having to listen to these individuals let me know the reason why they haven't been able to pay their child support, I have quite a different overall view."
Now, Grant said he can "somewhat sympathize, you know, with what they're going through." Often, the people he approaches "really don't have the necessary means or tools to get started to pay that," he said.
Roughly 90 percent of those approached agree to be helped, he said. "Quite frankly, a lot of them are even surprised that such a program even existed," Grant said. As one of two child support liaisons in Tulsa, he handles about 160 cases, the vast majority involving long-overdue payments.
Grant's outreach efforts seem to have made a difference in Byerman's life. The pilot program known as Project WIN -- an acronym which stands for Workforce Innovation Now -- provided Byerman with gas cards to cover travel expenses getting to work as a forklift operator in Jenks.
"If it wasn't for Michael giving me the gas cards that he did give me, I probably wouldn't be able to hold the job," Byerman said.
Participating in the program and talking with Grant also has reshaped Byerman's attitude about the state's child support system.
"Before, it was like they're the enemy, you know. This is the way I kind of looked at it," Byerman said. He added: "When they come at you, they come at you. They have a lawyer and everything on their side and you're just a piddly nobody, and you're trying to tell them what's going on in your life." But "the only thing they're interested in is getting their money from you."
Byerman said he's struggled to find work since moving to Tulsa more than 10 years ago. "They need more of these kinds of programs to help the people, the little people that have been kicked down for so long that it's hard to stand back up," Byerman said, praising Grant for his support and for helping him avoid the loss of his driver's license.
The gas cards were made available through Project WIN, a program funded when Oklahoma received a grant from the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, a division of the Administration of Children and Families. Statewide, between 25 and 30 percent of noncustodial parents have limited or no earnings, according to Oklahoma Child Support Services, a division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
In addition to funding for gas cards, Grant said the program helps pay for clothing to help job seekers make a positive impression in interviews.
The program in Tulsa includes lengthy workshops to help those owing child support with advice on a diverse set of topics. A Dec. 18 workshop had 32 attendees who heard talks offering information about child visitation, as well as tips for former offenders on searching for work.
Attendance was mandatory for those in the program, Grant said, and the session was filled with "a lot of active participation."
The goal, of course, is to help the men -- Grant said at most 10 percent of those he works with are women -- fulfill their financial obligations.
"The court liaison program itself has helped with getting collectables up and getting money to families and has been providing a means of allowing those parents who haven't been paying their child support some sort of means of getting that done," Grant said.
Byerman said he's been ordered to pay $50 a month toward his debt, with money currently being automatically taken out of his check. At this rate, he'll never pay down his debt completely, he said.
The success of Project WIN has been modest. Of the 13 who attended the first Project WIN workshop in Tulsa in September, four have found jobs, according to the state child support agency.
But another key facet of the program is collaborating with other agencies and local nonprofits, such Workforce Oklahoma, the newly created Tulsa Reentry One Stop program for ex-offenders, and Goodwill Industries of Tulsa Inc. Six attendees of the September workshop have enrolled in a Goodwill job training program.
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