SMITH COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - An East Texas father thought his paycheck witholdings were going toward paying child support to his children, but he discovered much of the money ended up funding his employer instead.
In the state of Texas, $3.8 billion in child support was collected last year, according the attorney general's office, who handles collecting that money.
Seventy-eight percent of that amount comes through garnished wages or money withheld from an employee's check each pay period.
Justin Meadows worked for P&O Motors as a mechanic in 2006. He said they made him feel like family.
"I wound up getting really close, because it is a mom and pop place, I did get really really close to the owners," said Justin. "They were a little hometown place, they weren't some big corporation. They acted like they cared."
Justin said he let the employer know up front that 50 percent of his wages should be withheld for child support. His six children were not in his custody, and he admitted that he owed back child support when he started at working at P&O.
"I am trying to, as an adult, do the grown up, adult thing and fix this, clean this up."
Justin's wife Becky said though the child support withholding hurt the cash flow into their home, knowing that Justin's children were being taken care of was the priority.
"If this is all that's coming in, at least we know the kids are taken care of," said Becky. "If we can get by, we'll make adjustments."
Justin worked for P&O for seven years, and as time passed, he received occasional calls from the mothers of his children.
"Every once in a while I would get a phone call from a distraught mother wanting to know where the money is," said Justin. "I'm seeing it on my paycheck stubs that child support is being taken out. I don't ever think negative or ill thoughts about it."
He chalked it up to a backlog at the Attorney General's office, and ignored it.
"When [they] called me saying 'Hey, where's my money?' [I would say] you need to call the state, not me."
In 2013, however, he started to notice financial trouble at his job and he started asking questions.
One of the mothers of his children told him that she wasn't getting child support like she should.
"She told me that she goes weeks without," said Justin. "She gets a little bit more, the little bit ain't even a portion."
Frustrated, Justin started reviewing the records and doing calculations.
"$28,000 in discrepancies between what my payroll said and what my child support said," Justin recalled.
Including interest, Justin calculated over $32,000 taken from his paycheck over seven years that never reached his children.
In 2009 alone, payroll records show the employer withheld $12,442 and the State of Texas received $ $5,201.71 of that amount.
Becky said she watched her husband in despair when he discovered the missing money.
"He felt like a failure as far as the way all the kids must look at him," Becky said. "He never has wanted to get out of anything, and this money's not for us, it's the kids' money.
Family law attorney Amy Long said that Texas law holds employers responsible for withheld money that does not get turned over to the state. Janece Rolfe, communications manager for the Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said an employer can face civil penalties or criminal action, depending on how long the repayment takes.
The Meadows said despite them notifying the OAG, and filing a police report in Smith County, no legal action was taken, and the money remained unpaid in 2014.
Initially, Justin confronted his employer and the owner, Carla Bateman, agreed to start re-paying the money. However, after it became obvious that no payment would be made, Justin quit working for P&O in August of 2013.
After eight months, the criminal investigation by the sheriff's office was suspended.
Bateman said that she has owned up to taking the money during the seven year period that Justin worked for her company.
"I did not pay everything I should have paid, things were tight," said Bateman. "With the depression coming in, everything was tight."
Bateman pointed out that Justin was behind on his child support when he started working for her.
When asked if that was a reason to take money from him, she responded, "No, it's not, and I'm not arguing that point. I've owned up to it."
She also said she felt remorseful for what she did.
Attorney Long said she's hearing about more cases similar to Justin's in the field of family law.
"We're seeing it more often that the employer is actually withholding but not forwarding the money," said Long. "Until somebody starts going after them, we're going to see this happening, in this economy, unfortunately."
Long said either the custodial parent, non-custodial parent, or the OAG have the right under the law file a civil suit against an employer for misappropriated child support.
"The non-custodial parent sometimes doesn't want to file suit against their employer for fear of losing their job," said Long of the challenges involved. "The custodial parent, who's receiving child support, may find it difficult to find an attorney that can take their case."
The Texas OAG declined to respond as to why no civil or criminal action was ever taken against the employer since 2013 when Justin first notified them about the missing money.
Rolfe provided this written statement from the OAG:
The Office of the Attorney General took aggressive steps to hold this employer accountable, and the money in question has been repaid.
Most Texas employers honor wage withholding orders that require them to deduct child support from a parent's paycheck and send the money to the State Disbursement Unit.
Any parent with an OAG child support case should immediately contact us if the amount withheld from his or her paycheck, as documented on the paystub, differs from the amount recorded by the State.