NOTE: National County Government Week is April 6-12. This year’s theme is: Protecting Our Children. This is the first of a multi-part series that examines how Pinal County Government works to protect and serve the children in the county.
FLORENCE- As a former emergency room nurse, Child Support Chief Deputy Michelle Krstyen knows what it is like to help people who depend on your skills and expertise.
Sixteen years into her “second career” as an attorney, Krstyen is using a different skill set to help families who depend on her and her staff to collect court-ordered child support.
“Being able to help people is very important,” Krstyen said. “I don’t think you could do this if you were not passionate about the job.”
Krstyen directs a staff of 39 inside the County Attorney’s Office. Three attorneys, including Krstyen, are in court up to three days a week working to make sure parents are living up to their obligations to their children.
Only four counties in Arizona oversee child support (Pinal, Gila, Navajo and La Paz), the other 11 rely on the state’s Division of Child Support Enforcement to collect payments.
Pinal County contracts with the state to provide the following child support services:
- Establish paternity for all children born out of wedlock
- Enter child support orders for the non-custodial parent
- Enforce child support orders
- Establish a medical support order to make sure a child is covered by health insurance
Eighty percent of the cases the child support staff oversees have orders for child support.
“Currently we have 11,544 cases,” Krstyen said. “That’s a lot of cases.”
Believe it or not, Krstyen said the county has roughly the same amount of child support cases as it did when she came on board in 1993.
“The reason the number stays the same is that we have children that move in and out of the system,” she explained. “The kids will grow up and then we have new kids that replace them to keep the number the same. Still, with all the county’s growth it’s good that the numbers are rising also.”
In 1993, Pinal County collected almost four million dollars in child support payments. In 2008, that number will be closer to $20 million.
“We are already 20 percent ahead of what we collected last year,” Krstyen said.
While the state of the economy affects what is collected in child support, Krstyen credits automation to the rise in payments to her office.
“Automation is wonderful,” Krstyen said. “We have such tools as a tax intercept program which allows us to collect a Federal or State tax refund if the person is in arrears. We also have the automated income withholding which allows us to garnish wages for child support collection.”
Krstyen also gives credit to her staff, the judiciary and the administration for her division’s success at collecting what is due from parents.
“We have aggressive judicial enforcement from our family law commissioner Theresa Ratliff,” Krstyen said. “Sixty to seventy percent of our employees have been here for over 10 years. Their dedication to the public is wonderful. We also have to credit the amazing support from our County Attorney James P. Walsh and the Board of Supervisors. They are behind this program 150 percent. Without that support, we would not be as successful as we are today.” One measurement of success for the division is the annual audit performed by the state on the child support program. The Department of Economic Security’s audit numbers, according to Krstyen, were the best the division has ever received.
“When you look at all the areas that were studied, we scored over 90 percent in every one,” Krstyen beamed. “This is the highest audit we have ever had.”
County Attorney Walsh said the numbers reflect the dedication of the staff.
“You can examine numbers from the audit to the amount of money collected and it will tell you one thing,” the County Attorney said, “We have one of the best divisions for child support operation in the state. My regular meetings with Michelle keep me up-to-date on all the information that is available about this program.”
While the job may present daily challenges, Krstyen is in no hurry to go back to her emergency room days.
“”I’m not planning on leaving any time soon,” Krstyen said. “Legally, we have a broad range of things we can do, it is very rewarding.”