Oft-maligned county workers get commended

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Domestic Relations Office praised for delivering deserved financial support to children

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Employees from the enforcement unit of the Domestic Relations Office fill the jury box in Courtroom Two for a group photo.

Imagine trying to wrangle child-support payments from individuals determined to avoid them or playing a role in jailing someone chronically delinquent.

Such scenarios occur routinely in Chester County’s Domestic Relations Office, where the vernacular includes arrears counseling. paternity tests, and wage attachments.

Against that backdrop, the opportunity to observe Pennsylvania’s Child Support Awareness Day presented county officials with a chance to accentuate the positive and thank the staff of 79 workers for their commitment and dedication.

“It is, in fact, a very good day for Chester County,” said President Judge James P. MacElree II, who presided over a celebratory program this morning attended by about 100 people, including county officials, employees, and some of the employees’ relatives.

For the fifth year in a row, Chester County led third-class counties in Pennsylvania with child-support payments, state records show. The county collected nearly $65 million in 2011, about $6 million more than Lancaster County, which logged the second-highest total. For the first time ever, the county topped all 67 counties in collections per case.

“We don’t hear a lot of praise and accolades from our clientele,” said Joseph M. Waters, who has headed the office since 1988. He said workers were encouraged to invite family members to join them because they typically provide a venue for venting. “I know that when we come home at the end of the day, you get it,” Waters told the relatives, eliciting appreciative nods.

Waters said his staff, which “gets yelled at every day” and endures untold indignities with class, has grown by only seven workers in the past 25 years. He said for every dollar his office spends out of its operating budget, it gets “an amazing return” of $10 in child support. For county taxpayers, who fund one-third of the budget, the return is a whopping 30 to 1, he said.

Joseph M. Waters, who directs the Domestic Relations Office, displays one of the blue ribbons distributed by the state to commemorate Child Support Awareness Day.

Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone presented the office with a proclamation and the gratitude of the board, commending the staff for working to make the best of some difficult family dynamics. “I also know that you do it with compassion,” she said.

Judge Katherine B.L. Platt, who oversees Family Court, said the longevity of the staff has provided “institutional memory and institutional camaraderie” that fosters the office’s mission. “That’s what it’s about … all about protecting children,”  she said, adding that the additional staff has make the office  “more than seven times more efficient.”

MacElree said his involvement in the system goes back almost four decades when he was assigned to domestic relations as an assistant district attorney and learned the ropes from then-President Judge D.T. Marrone. “The Marrone solution,” as it came to be known, involved finding the individual most in arrears, having him hauled out of court in handcuffs, and then taking a break – an interlude that always encouraged others “to open their checkbooks,” MacElree said.

Waters said the high collection rate means nothing to children who  aren’t receiving the support they deserve. “Our work is far from over,” he said. “There are a lot of people who still need our help.”

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