Kevin Scott Smith has become one of the North Carolina Division of Social Services' regular customers.
After a background check, home visits and extensive training, the agency's foster care licensing program approved him as a foster parent in August. His relationship with the agency's child support services department is another matter. It is currently attempting to collect more than $4,100 from him in past due child-support payments for his 3-year-old son Griffin Peltier.
For three years, Griffin's mother Bonnie Peltier and Smith battled it out in court over child support payments. At one point, the court system lost the paperwork, and due to delays, Smith paid nothing the first year. Now he owes her back payments. Smith cut a deal with the court that allows him to repay the money at a rate of $100 a month.
Then, in November, Smith and his wife, who live in a house with a $261,000 tax value in Huntersville, took in their first foster child -- for which they'll be paid a foster-care stipend of at least $495 a month. But the next month, according to state child support collection records, Smith failed to make his child-support payment. As part of the foster-parent application process, Smith told state foster-care officials he makes more than $40,000 a year.
At times, Smith has regularly paid his child-support payments, state records show. Other months, he has fallen behind. Creative Loafing's initial calls to Smith were not returned. When we called him a third time and offered him an opportunity to comment on the story and his child-support payment status, he hung up on us.
Bonnie Peltier is baffled by the whole thing.
"That's just crazy," says Peltier, who has been struggling financially since she was laid off from her job as a community manager for Crescent Resources in March. "How often does this happen where people aren't taking care of their own kids but then they take in foster children?"
Peltier says that when she called Mecklenburg County's Youth and Family Services Department to complain, she was told that the state was desperate for foster parents and that there was nothing they could do about it. That's true on both counts, as it turns out.
In North Carolina, a parent's child-support payment status isn't considered during the foster-parent application, no matter how much is owed.
"That's something we wouldn't even consider," said Harry Maney, who works in the regulatory and licensing services office of the North Carolina Division of Social Services and helps oversee the foster-parent licensing program in Mecklenburg County. "The only concern we have is that the foster parent have an apparent ability to sustain his family or household without the foster care stipend because the stipend is only enough to cover the expenses of the child."
Maney says that state law doesn't require that licensing agencies check into parents' child-support status, so it can't be taken into account during the licensing process.
"What we are looking for is, does the household seem to be in good repair, does it seem to be adequately supplied, does it look like it can meet the needs of children?" said Maney. "We look at the general attire of the parents when they go through training, but we do not look to see if are you mortgaged up to your eyeballs, if your credit cards are all maxed out or if there are bill collectors knocking on your door. We wouldn't consider that unless it was obvious, unless bill collectors were calling Mecklenburg DSS and saying we are going to foreclose on this person's house tomorrow. It would have to be pretty drastic."
But what if a struggling mother called to complain that a foster parent was behind on his child-support payments?
"We'd say, 'We're sorry, we suggest that you contact the child support office,'" said Maney.
The whole thing still doesn't make much sense to Peltier. Why would a foster care agency go so far as to contact a prospective foster parent's neighbors and associates during the licensing process, and even make judgments based on such small details as the clothes they wear, but not be required to speak to the mother of his child?
Maney seemed to feel some sympathy for Peltier, and even offered her some advice.
"Yeah, unfortunately this [the $495 foster-care stipend] is not a form of income that they can garnish or redirect to her, but her timing is probably pretty appropriate because she could probably intercept any income tax return that he has coming to him from either federal or state if she works through the child support office in Mecklenburg County." For the time being, Peltier is working with the state's child support collection agency.
"What's ironic is that one part of government does not know what is going on in another part," said Maney. "In a way that makes me feel good. Government knows too much as it is."