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Taking Money From Unsuspecting Parents

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation is raising questions about the tactics a private company is using to collect child support in Tennessee.

Bobby Mayes of Nashville was shocked when his employer started withholding money from his paycheck for child support. 

A Texas company called Support Kids sent official looking papers directing his employer to send weekly checks to a private post office box. 

State officials said the company is breaking the law and worry other employers could be fooled. 

"I stand a chance of losing my job, losing my home and losing my truck because they're taking my money," Mayes said.

"The agencies they're coming in and not only taking away from the children but they're taking away from the state," said Mitchell Morgan, director of Child Support Services division at the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County.

If this is illegal how is it happening? The attorney general is looking into how private companies collect delinquent child support.

Mayes got custody of his daughter when she was a teenager -- now she's 30 years old.

"This is my baby daughter," he said showing pictures.

That's why he was stunned his employer started withholding $300 a month from his paycheck -- for child support.

"I figured it was some kind of con or something somebody done pulled to try and take money from my check. This is ridiculous," he said.

A Texas company called Support Kids contacted Mayes' employer claiming he owed child support. 

That company is being sued by the state of Virginia.  State officials there claim the company "tricks employers" into withholding income by sending paperwork that looks official. 

"It looks very official.  It is not legal," said Mike Adams, Tennessee's assistant commissioner for child support enforcement.

He said says private companies can't direct employers to withhold money. 

But he's seeing it happen in Tennessee.

"It does concern me and that's why we've alerted the Attorney General's Office as the appropriate agency to look into it," Adams said.

The paperwork the company sent to Mayes employer identifies Support Kids as the agency withholding the money followed by the official looking words Child Support Enforcement.

It also sent a court order from more than 20 years ago -- a court order Mayes says is no longer valid.

"It's a 1987 court order and the case has been closed. So they shouldn't have been able to use that court order against me.  They should have to take me back to court or something," Mayes said.

The state said there is a place for private companies to collect delinquent child support.  But they said companies cannot order employers to withhold money. And they must send all money they collect through the state's central office.]]]

The papers sent to Mayes employer direct payments to a post office box owned by Support Kids.

When NewsChannel5 investigative reporter Ben Hall asked how widespread a problem the companies are, Morgan said, "I think they're probably a really big problem."

Morgan, who  runs Memphis's child support office, said he has seen another company called Child Support Services operating in Tennessee.

"They're prohibited from doing business in the state of Florida yet they've set up shop here in Tennessee and they are operating and wreaking havoc here," he said.

Morgan said the companies prey on desperate parents by charging fees as high as 35 percent for collecting child support.  

He said when they don't send the money through the state, parents may not get credit for their payments. 

"The agencies are coming in and not only taking away from the children but they're taking away from the state," he said.

"We are not issuing orders for employers to withhold money. We are issuing notices," said Support Kids General Counsel Eric Rosenkotter.

He said the company has its name on the paperwork and is not deceptive. He also insisted "If the state would cooperate, we would ensure all payments went through the state."  But he said Tennessee and Virginia don't cooperate with private companies.

The state pointed out it collects child support payments nearly free of charge and if the state garnishes someone's wages the person has a chance to appeal.

Mayes said what happened to him is just plain wrong. State officials worry other employers will unknowingly garnish people's wages.

His employer refunded all the money taken out of his account. The state said his case is closed but will not comment any further.

Some parents might not care how the company collects child support as long as they get the job done.

Mayes' ex-wife insists he still owes money.

But the state said these companies have to follow state law when they collect. 

Uncollected child support is a big problem in Tennessee. 

Nearly 50 percent of parents are behind on their child support payments -- and that's about $2 billion.

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