Millions of dollars in child support often gets put on hold for months at the Texas Attorney General's Office, impacting needy families, a KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered. It happens so often that family law attorneys have a name for it: child support purgatory.
It happened to Toyna Brian in January. The Elgin mother has two boys in grade school and relies on her ex-husband's child support to pay for their clothes, food and school supplies. All three share a modest trailer with their grandparents.
The Texas Attorney General's Office, which collects the money from her ex's paycheck, put about $3,000 of her child support on hold and nobody could tell her why.
"You feel helpless. You really, really feel helpless because you can't reach anyone there, you can't talk to anyone there," said Brian. "It's their money -- it's theirs. It belongs to them," she said.
According to state records, the attorney general's office did not distribute $55 million in child support to Texas families during the third quarter of this year. That's a 150 percent increase over the past four years.
"It's not fair, it's not fair particularly to the kiddos," said Jimmy Vaught, a board certified family law attorney in Austin.
In most of his cases, he can force the state to release the money to parents by obtaining a court order. That requires hiring an attorney, which not all parents can afford.
"I consider it to be stuck in child support purgatory. They've acknowledged that they've gotten it but they can't distribute it," Vaught said.
Janece Rolfe, a spokesperson for the attorney general's office, said, "We realize that it's not our money. This money belongs to families. We work very hard to get it to them as quickly possible."
Rolfe points out the OAG has been recognized for collecting more child support than any other state in the nation. It collected $3.8 billion last year.
She said money is often put on hold for legitimate reasons.
"A dispute, a disagreement about custody or child support. That money would be on hold for a period of time until the situation is resolved," said Rolfe.
Other reasons include not having correct contact information for parents or changes in a parent's employer.
While the state keeps track of how much child support it puts on hold, it doesn't know how many families are waiting for that money.
"There are always ways that situations and processes can be improved and we try to do that every day. We're not stuck doing things the same way just because we've always done it. We always look for ways to improve," said Rolfe.
For four months, Brian tried in vain to get her money. Two days after the KVUE Defenders called the OAG on Brian's behalf, it released her child support. The OAG said someone accidentally mishandled Brian's paperwork and did not enter a court order into its computer program.
Rolfe apologized for the mistake.
OAG believes the amount of undistributed money to families will drop before the end of the year.
What if it happens to you?
Parents with child support cases can go to Child Support Interactive to get information about their case. They also can call 1-800-252-8014.
The OAG also has a state website where parents can enter their zip code and find the office closest to them. Parents can visit any location to make inquiries.
Parents who don't have a child support case can go to this website to apply for services.