Missouri law can criminalize parents who fail to pay child support. The Missouri Public Defender System handles roughly 6,000 of these cases annually. During a state House Budget Committee hearing, System Director Mary Fox said handling those cases in civil court, instead of criminal court, could have a significant financial impact on her office.

Missouri Capitol (Photo courtesy of Alisa Nelson, Missourinet)

“If the person is going to admit responsibility, there is a long time period in trying to determine what payments need to be made, how those payments will be made. The person is often placed on probation,” she said. “Every time they fail to keep up with those child support payments, there is a probation violation, which then becomes another case for us.”

Fox said in St. Louis County, the prosecutor has chosen to handle those cases in civil court instead of criminal court.

“Child support cases was one of the biggest case numbers in St. Louis County, which was considered by the courts when they determined that there was an overload and a need for a wait list. The elimination of those child support cases has decreased the cases coming into the St. Louis County Public Defender’s Office,” said Fox.

She says the child support collections in St. Louis County have not declined as a result of pursuing those cases in civil court.

A Missouri court has ruled that putting individuals on a waiting list to get public defender services violates state and federal law. The system is overloaded with roughly 90,000 cases per year for its nearly 400 lawyers. The waiting list has been around since 2017 to help deal with the mounting case load count.

Gov. Mike Parson’s state budget proposal aims to reduce the line of people waiting for these services. Fox said the governor’s proposal asks for $1.1 million to hire 16 additional attorneys.

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