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Kai Ryssdal: Families that are lucky enough to have two incomes are being challenged by this recession. For moms and dads raising kids on their own, though, it can be almost impossible. With unemployment at 10 percent, higher in a lot of states, some divorced parents are falling behind on child support. But the economy is also being used as an excuse for those missed checks. From Nashville, Tenn., private investigator and radio reporter Thomas H. Humphreys has more.
THOMAS HUMPHREYS: The first thing you notice in some cases is the overuse of catchphrases and derogatory titles that grab attention, like the alliterative "deadbeat dad."
Judge Philip Smith's courtroom is full this afternoon -- 62 child support cases. But no deadbeats.
JUDGE PHILIP SMITH: Mr. Crowley, you made $18,000 in 2008. Now you're only making $7.25 an hour for 21 hours. Is that right?
Judge Smith says he's flooded with requests from mostly honest dads and moms, folks just down on their luck looking for a little help -- a modification in their monthly support payment.
SMITH: I've heard very viable petitions to modify. We've had some plant closings around Nashville. These folks have no control over that. You know, for the most part, they're going out looking for jobs. Acting in good faith.
That's no comfort to attorneys like Rhonda Spurlock. Her desk is piled nearly two-feet high with case files.
RHONDA SPURLOCK: Our modification case load has almost tripled.
She's a litigator for Child Support Services in the Nashville area. Spurlock says child support collections are down nearly 7 percent in her district this year. She says no one is immune, not even folks in one of the nation's wealthiest counties.
SPURLOCK: In Williamson County, a lot of our requests for modifications have been from higher income obligors. People coming from presidents of banks, high-level executives.
People who were making a $150,000-$200,000. Not to mention those plant workers from nearby GM who've been laid off and simply cannot find work.
The economy's impact on child support has been nothing short of devastating, and that allows a handful of people to play on the sympathy of the court. The economy's given them the perfect excuse to lean on. I ask Judge Smith how he can tell who's just working the system.
SMITH: You never can be sure. The decisions that I make are based on the proof presented to me. Photographs, videotape, those things speak for themselves.
Now we're getting back to my territory, evidence.
Nobody knows evidence better than Renee Waters, one of the best PIs I know. She got her start in this business by getting the goods on her very own deadbeat ex-husband. I catch up with her at Patterson House, local gin joint. The room is dark, tin ceiling, book shelves, and a bartender you know by name.
BARTENDER: Do you know what you'd like to have tonight?
HUMPHREYS: Considering the night, James, I think I'm gonna have a couple of dark and stormies.
Waters' ex told the judge he couldn't pay because he was unemployed, but she knew he had a job.
RENEE Waters: I borrowed my parents' Polaroid camera and went to that address. And 45 minutes later I had pictures of him up in the bucket trimming trees.
With proof in hand, the judge in Waters' case sent the deadbeat to the big house for a few days of reflection.
Waters: And Judge Robinson asked me back up to the stand. And she told me that I had done something that most young mothers don't have the wherewithal to do. And when I left there, that pat on my back, I still have it. I left there knowing what I was gonna do.
Waters decided then to devote her life to helping single parents, like Teara Tidwell. She's trying to scrape by on a substitute teacher's salary.
TEARA Tidwell: Every month, those same bills keep coming in, and every month that child support check doesn't.
Tidwell's not sure which category her baby's dad falls into -- deadbeat or just down on his luck. But in the end, it doesn't really matter. She's still got to feed her 15-month-old daughter.
Tidwell: I lay there at night and watch her sleep and I think about it, that it's my job to take care of you, and you know, what would happen if I were to be sick or anything. It scares me to think about that.
The bottom line is, in this economy, everyone's scared. Judge Smith and Rhonda Spurlock both offer this advice to anyone who's in danger of falling behind on child support payments: File a petition to modify immediately, before you get behind, before handcuffs become your only option. Because serving time doesn't feed anybody.
From the files of [FIND] Investigations, I'm Nashville Private Investigator, Thomas H. Humphreys, for Marketplace.