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Program helps non-custodial parents meet obligations

August 31, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Frank Garcia received a letter to appear in court last February for not paying child support. He had no job and thought he was going to jail.

Garcia, of Brawley, was just starting to turn around his life and studying to be a Bible counselor. But the 38-year-old also was unemployed and unable to pay for his kids' support.

"I went to the court and told them I was prepared to go to jail," Garcia said. "Then they told me about the ROP program."

The Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program is working with the District Attorney's Office and court Commissioner Jim Jones to help parents who don't have custody of their children get jobs so they can make child-support payments.

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Sometimes that help comes in the form of job-training programs, other times it means helping parents find mental health or drug-rehabilitation assistance, said Debbie Hayes, project coordinator with IVROP.

"We do whatever it takes to help them find a job and start making child-support payments again," Hayes said.

Garcia worked his way from unemployment to gas station attendant to manager of a retirement home within seven months.

In the courtroom, Jones calls names from a stack of files. If they are ROP clients, they don't always need to appear if they are training or working. Hayes updates Jones on their status.

"This client got a job but was arrested for playing loud music," Hayes says. "Now he's out of jail and back at work."

Jones checks with Deputy District Attorney Saskia Arthur and orders the client back in four weeks for an update.

Jones calls another name.

"He's not one of my clients," Hayes says. "I wasn't happy when he started with us and went five days into a training program, then quit because he wanted to do something else. He'll have to convince me that I should take him back."

"I will leave the child-support order in force," Jones says. "If you accept him into the program again, I will consider a suspension after 30 days."

Project Trabajo, Spanish for "work," and Project PRIDE, Promoting Responsibility, Integrity, Determination and Economic Self-Sufficiency, are ROP programs funded by state and federal programs.

To be eligible for the programs, the non-custodial parent must be unemployed or having difficulty paying child support. Their minor children must be on some kind of federal or state aide.

Dennis Ortiz, 44, knows how much the program can turn around one's life.

He went through the program in 1999 and entered Turning Point Ministries for help with a drug problem.

Ortiz was an intravenous drug user shooting up crystal methamphetamine. After going through the program, he became a staff member at Turning Point.

"I was a meth addict for 30 years," Ortiz said. "I was a functioning addict — for awhile. I also tried to sell meth but I was my best customer, so it didn't work out too well.

"I went to a secular program for drug addiction," he said. "I was diagnosed as maladjusted, bipolar, compulsive, destructive and having behavior problems."

Ortiz said all the labels didn't help, but Turning Point Ministries did.

Now Ortiz lives in and supervises a Christian home in Holtville that uses biblical principles to help men and their families with life-control problems. The program covers issues such as addiction, anger management, fear and other emotional problems.

Garcia and Ortiz now volunteer in the community, trying to encourage others to put their lives back together. Ortiz talks with kids at juvenile hall, where there are more than a few non-custodial parents.

Hayes said the program is a success. She has 56 clients, both men and women, 18 of whom have moved to jobs outside the program and 23 of whom are training or in work-experience contracts.

August is child support awareness month.

Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or la_mitchel1@yahoo.com

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