Ponder This the Next Time You Hear Some Chest-Thumping DA Pledge to Crack Down on ‘Deadbeat Dads’, Part II-The Chalmers Case

The recent audit of Missouri child support points directly to the Herbert Chalmers tragedy last year. The audit found that in child support cases “the amount owed was incorrect in 27 percent of the cases” and “record-keeping was so far off that parents were shown as owing $309,409 to $454,647 more than they actually owed.” Moreover, these errors have led to unfair punishments of innocent fathers. To learn more about the audit, click here.

In April 2006, Herbert Chalmers of St. Louis, Missouri killed himself and three others, including two members of the family whose business was garnisheeing his wages. Chalmers” withholding had been doubled and he was left with only $400 a month from his paychecks. He claimed he was the victim of a child support enforcement error but it was only after the killings that an investigation was conducted. The result? According to state officials, Chalmers had been correct–due to a clerical error, he was being garnisheed five times what he actually owed.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed a man whose family members were killed in the spree, who told them “If it was a mistake, it cost the lives of my family.”

According to the article:

“Did the state make some kind of mistake in calculating Herbert L. Chalmers’ child support, possibly sparking a rampage that killed four women–including his children’s mother and two members of the family whose business garnisheed his wages?

“Chalmers made it clear he felt there had been an error, railing about it for months before Tuesday’s bloody spree. He complained about it to some survivors of the tragedy before using his last shot on himself…

“Chalmers told his boss, co-workers and at least one friend that part of his salary was being wrongly withheld.

“‘What set him off was the fact that they were garnisheeing his check,’ his co-worker James Lee, 76, said after the shooting stopped. Lee and another co-worker said Chalmers denied being the father of the children.

“Records indicate that Chalmers had accepted responsibility as father on the birth certificates, but reportedly he claimed later he determined he was not their father…

“The children are now grown, and the child-support issue involves payments allegedly owed from the past.

“Charlie Finninger, who with his wife owned Finninger’s Catering Service in St. Louis, said Chalmers, a five-year employee, complained several months ago that the garnishment was wrong.

“‘I told him my hands were tied,’ Finninger said. ‘I told him if the state was wrong, then he should fight it.’ Finninger offered Chalmers copies of documents to help make his case…

“Finninger wondered aloud Friday whether Chalmers had been right about an error. ‘If it was a mistake, it cost the lives of my family.’

“…[Chalmers said] he couldn’t survive on $200 every two weeks and was going to kill the people who had made him suffer…

“It appears that Chalmers’ withholding for child support had almost doubled over three years…”

And now, a later report done after Chalmers’ claim was posthumously investigated says:

“A clerical error caused the state to assess a man who went on a shooting rampage last week five times more per month in child support than he actually owed, state officials acknowledged…

“An error in data entry, made when more than 400,000 child support files were converted to a new computer database in 1998, increased Chalmers’ monthly child support more than fivefold, said Deborah Scott, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services.

“But Scott also stressed that Chalmers had many opportunities to correct the error since 1998.

“After Chalmers, 54, contacted the department once this year about the amount he owed, an employee tried five times to contact him without success, she said.

“On April 18, when Chalmers went on his rampage, the department was garnisheeing 50 percent of his paycheck – the state’s top limit – for back support, Scott said…

“In 1997, Chalmers was supposed to be paying $133 per month in current child support and owed $724.92 in back support.

“Records, including Chalmers’ file, were converted into the Missouri Automated Child Support System in 1998. Scott said the department knew there were some problems with the conversion, and said workers made ‘significant attempts’ to ensure accuracy.

“At some point, a worker spotted the $724.92 back child support figure for Chalmers and entered it as the amount he was to pay per month for current child support, Scott said.”

I’m deeply suspicious that Chalmers “had many opportunities to correct the error since 1998”–it is notoriously difficult to get child support enforcement to fix errors. Chalmers’ deadly rampage is unforgivable under any circumstances, but the abusive child support enforcement system helped provoke it.

[Thanks to child support expert Jane Spies of the National Family Justice Association. Jane discusses problems with the child support system in her recent article The Myth of the Successful Child Support System.]

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