When Jessica Sanchez was a child, she strategically planned visits to friends’ homes at the dinner hour. “I would pretend I was going over there to play, but, really, it was just in time for dinner,” she says. Food and money were scarce during Sanchez’ childhood, as her single mother struggled to collect child support for Sanchez and her sister. Now 28, Sanchez has yet to see a cent of child support, for either herself or her two young sons.
For the last seven years, Sanchez has tried to collect child support through the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) of the New Mexico Human Services Department. She has filed reams of paperwork, made countless phone calls and left dozens of messages—only one of which was ever returned. Still, Jessica and her sons haven’t received the support they’re owed.
“He’s given me 600 dollars in the last seven or eight years,” says Sanchez of her sons’ father. “It works out to about three cents a month,” she jokes. The father of Sanchez’s children owes around $45,000 in child support.
At a recent hearing, which Sanchez arranged independently of the CSED, the father was ordered to begin making payments. Upon hearing the judgment, Sanchez recalls, the man advised officials to “put a warrant out for my arrest right now because I’m not going to pay.” The CSED, says Sanchez, “did nothing” in response. “What they should’ve done was arrested him because he was in contempt of court,” she says. Instead, “they totally ignored him.”
Likewise, the CSED has ignored Sanchez’s persistent attempts at communication—and her demands that the agency enforce, as its title implies, her lawful entitlement to child support.
Since Sanchez first submitted her application for child support seven years ago, the CSED has opened and closed her case several times, each for no clear reason. In 2005, Sanchez re-submitted her request for an application. (The CSED requires that applicants officially request an application; they do not make applications readily available.) Five months passed without word from the agency, until Sanchez inquired about the status of her request. The CSED told Sanchez that her case had already been closed, due to “noncompliance.” In fact, Sanchez hadn’t ever received notice that her case had been opened.
The operator she spoke to explained that new cases are often closed, as applications are not mailed individually, but in large “batches.” The agency waits until it receives a certain number of requests before it actually mails the application materials, but assigns deadlines on a case-by-case basis. Thus, Sanchez’s deadline to submit her application arrived before the application was ever mailed. When Sanchez asked how long it would be before the next batch was sent, the operator replied that it could be “right away, or it could be months.” Six months passed before Sanchez received another application from the CSED.
From there, Sanchez’s experience with the CSED only grew more frustrating. Her case was closed and re-opened, seemingly for no reason, and without her knowledge or consent. She was re-assigned numerous new caseworkers, none of whom would return her calls. Further, Sanchez was told that she was not allowed to speak to her own caseworker. She spoke to innumerable operators, including one who laughed at Sanchez and subsequently hung up on her. Repeatedly, CSED representatives told Sanchez, “There is nothing we can do.”
The CSED did not return phone calls from the Alibi requesting their comment.
Sanchez’s experience with the CSED is not unusual, claims Jeffrey Goldberg, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in Albuquerque, who employs Sanchez as his legal secretary. Goldberg shared Sanchez’ frustration with the CSED and decided to help. He advised Sanchez to keep detailed records of her phone calls and letters to the agency, and to send all correspondence via certified mail. “Put everything in writing,” Goldberg urged. “Write everything down. If you don’t, they have the power … They can’t lie if you have a written record.” Per Goldberg’s advice, Sanchez kept a meticulous record of her interactions with the CSED.
Despite her persistence, Sanchez’s case for child support remained stagnant. In June of 2005, Goldberg sent a letter detailing Sanchez’ struggle to Kathleen B. Valdes, Acting Director of the CSED. He copied the letter to Pamela S. Hyde, Secretary of Human Services, and Governor Bill Richardson. More than six months later, in January 2007, Goldberg received a defensive response from the CSED, stating that Sanchez’ business was none of his, so long as he wasn’t her lawyer. From Richardson, Goldberg received a letter that was sympathetic but complacent; little more than a vague promise to investigate the problem.
Following Goldberg’s letter, Sanchez says the CSED was more responsive than usual to her concerns—but only for a short while. “Their attitude quickly changed,” she says. “They did do some stuff for me, but, eventually, it all fizzled away. Now, they’re not doing anything again.”
“They just like to push paper,” says Goldberg. “If someone tries to resist paying child support, they just give up. There are a lot of women in the same situation as Jessica. It’s obvious to me. I have lots of clients who are owed child support. They try to contact the child support office, and they get nowhere.”
It was only when Sanchez took matters into her own hands, with Goldberg’s guidance, that her case began to make slow progress.
“Jessica has done everything herself. She filed complaint, served the papers, showed up and got the judgment, and didn’t get any help at all from child support office,” says Goldberg. “At every turn, she’s had to do it herself, because they [the CSED] won’t and don’t do it.”
Jessica is grateful to Goldberg, and recognizes that most single parents don’t know how to navigate the CSED’s bureaucracy. “I wouldn’t have ever known I could do it on my own if he hadn’t told me,” says Sanchez. “It’s very frustrating, but I’m fortunate enough to have Mr. Goldberg helping me and keeping me focused, and constantly reminding me that it’s for the kids, constantly, so that I don’t give up.”
At times, Sanchez has wanted to give up, and she suspects that most single parents seeking child support feel this way, too. “There are so many roadblocks,” she says. “It’s insane. It can make you go insane.”
Despite her ongoing frustration, Sanchez says she won’t surrender her fight for child support. “I won’t give up because I care about the welfare of my children.” But Sanchez’s struggle isn’t only for her own family. “This is about all of the children in New Mexico who are owed child support,” she says. “Not just my children.”
As Sanchez continues her seven-year battle for child support, her mother’s case, decades old, remains open and unresolved. Sanchez hopes that she and her sons won’t have to wait quite so long before their case is settled.