RV outside family courts offers child support help

August 27, 2014 - 6:34 PM
Child Support Truck

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, Project Child Support founder Kai Patterson, center, invites Joseph Tobio, right, to discuss his case with an attorney after Tobio had a panic attack leaving Essex County Family Courthouse in Newark, N.J. Project Child Support is a new program that offers low-cost legal advice to parents from a refurbished RV parked outside courthouses in New York and New Jersey. (AP Photo/Rachelle Blidner)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Forget going to the food truck for lunch. Now you can get free legal advice on collecting child support from a nonprofit on wheels.

The mobile Project Child Support program rolled out this week, operating out of a brightly painted pink and teal recreational vehicle. The RV parks in front of family courthouses in New York and New Jersey, passing out fliers and lending an ear to upset parents as they exit child support hearings.

Founder Kai Patterson decided to create Project Child Support in 2009 after learning of the vast amount of child support owed across the country — which stood at $37.9 billion in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. He spent five years researching and getting sponsors. He dedicated his company to his mother, who raised him without getting any of the child support she needed.

"Knowing my mother went through the same circumstances, I decided somebody needs to do something about this problem," Patterson said. "I decided to create this initiative based on the needs, not how the system works."

The project is a team effort by the Custodial Support Law Firm, a nonprofit agency called the Custodial Support Foundation and Bounty Alert, a company also founded by Patterson that apprehends parents who have left the jurisdictions of warrants to pay their child support.

In its less-than-conventional office, the project offers "unconventional" legal assistance that parents often cannot find on their own, said Patterson, who has a weekly public access talk show on child support.

For custodial parents seeking payments, the project offers investigative services and bounty hunters to locate MIA parents — often fathers — and determine their assets. It also offers filing assistance, legal representation in courts and collection services.

An amnesty program provides legal services to help parents who owe child support access court documents, figure out how much they owe and adjust their payments to match their incomes.

Patterson said he plans to roll out 10 mobile units across the country over the next 18 months.

On Tuesday, the RV was parked on the street outside the Essex County Family Courthouse. Employees in teal shirts stood on the sidewalk under the RVs overhang, handing out flyers and business cards behind a white plastic table.

Many parents discovered the RV when they left court. One woman cried as she left a hearing. One man ranted about losing his visitation rights and went into a panic attack until employees calmed him down.

Other parents grabbed fliers quickly on their way.

Onboard, an attorney counsels parents from a table in the back, and Patterson discusses his program with waiting parents on leather couches.

Court fights over child support can take up a lot of time and money. Project marketing manager Antoinette Dismukes said she is owed more than $50,000 in child support for her 13-year-old son and has been fighting in court for the last 12 years.

"At court last time, I was upset and felt I wasn't heard," she said. "Parents feel as though they are not heard."

Noncustodial parents who must pay child support also need help, Patterson said.

Corey Thomas of Montclair said he cannot afford his child support payments of $800 a month for his two children on his $1,200-a-month salary. He owes $35,000 in back child support.

"I'm paying more support than I make, and it's pretty hard for me to make ends meet and do basic stuff for myself like pay bills, gas or get food for my house," the telecommunications installer said.

For Thomas and others who cannot afford to pay, project services are paid for by sponsors. Legal and investigative services both have price tags of $390 for people who can pay.

"Parents are dealing with two of their most important assets: their children and their money," Patterson said. "We need a service to assist in diffusing that tension."