Geraldine Jensen, who is less than 5 feet tall in her stocking feet, doesn’t look threatening. But, when she gets on the subject of child support, her voice sounds as if it could knock down brick walls.
Her attacks on the bureaucracy and determination to squeeze answers out of dry legalese have made her the terror of courtrooms and attracted nearly 100 new members a month to a parents’ advocacy group she formed 11 months ago: Advocates for Children for Enforcement of Support, or ACES.
The 32-year-old mother of two had $12 in her pocket and a pound of hamburger in her refrigerator when, as she tells it, a prosecutor said he could do nothing to collect more than $10,000 in overdue child support from her ex-husband in Nebraska. If she wanted her money, he said, she should “get a bunch of women together and do something about it.”
She took part of the $12 in March, 1984, and advertised for other women in the same dilemma. By mid-May there were ACES chapters in three counties; by the end of June, there were almost 200 members. This month, 23 ACES chapters will bring together 900 to 1,000 members at meetings throughout Ohio.
Phone Rings Frequently
Still, the phone on Jensen’s desk rings every few minutes with calls from persons who “have to talk to the lady who was on television” because they aren’t getting child support and don’t know where to get help.
Jensen appears frequently on radio and television talk shows, trains county coordinators and oversees ACES’ education programs on the rights and responsibilities of separated parents. She also directs its support groups for parents who aren’t getting child-support payments and circulates legal advice provided by the Toledo-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.
“We’re not attorneys, and we don’t pretend to be, but we can kind of interpret it for people,” she says. She sees ACES’ role as a guide through such agencies as bureaus of support, county prosecutors’ offices, the Ohio Human Services Department, juvenile or domestic relations courts and court clerks.
Jensen quit her job in January as a licensed practical nurse and nursing home administrator and works for ACES full time, although she is yet to be paid.
“There’s more money coming in in February, so we’ll have something in February, and we’re praying for March,” she says.
Seen as Biggest Victory
She spends several days a week traveling--to boost new chapters, attend meetings in Columbus with state officials and sessions of the Ohio Commission on Child Support, to which she was appointed by Gov. Richard F. Celeste. She considers the appointment ACES’ biggest victory so far.
In addition, a $2,500 grant from the Campaign for Human Development, a national organization affiliated with the Catholic Church, and a $4,000 contract with the state to help publicize child-support problems, have been added to the voluntary $5 ACES dues collected from most members. The money pays for a three-room office in the downtown YWCA that replaced Jensen’s kitchen table headquarters.
Jensen laughs often, lowers her voice in sympathy and seems like the friendly neighbor next door when talking about struggles to collect support payments.
The name “Gerri Jensen” causes judges in the Lucas County Courthouse to wince.
“I can tell you that from talking with other judges, they’re not impressed with their (ACES members’) tactics,” says Judge June Rose Galvin of Lucas County Domestic Relations Court, the target of ACES picketing outside her home. “Typically, they walk into court and start telling (judges) how they want things run. And I think for most people, that’s a turnoff.”
Encouraged to Ask Why
ACES members are encouraged to ask why when officials tell them their cases have been stalled and to demand answers. Jensen credits her stance as a court pest with the solution--in less than two months--of a support case that she had fought to resolve over several years.
“My impossible case was suddenly solved,” she says. “I think they just wanted to keep me quiet, but that has made me more determined, because if I can get my money, so can other people.”
She says that her case probably wasn’t mishandled but that, until she made herself known, it was just one of thousands of backlogged cases handled by understaffed government employees.
Willard Sass, a county welfare supervisor who pursues such cases, says there is a backlog of 5,500 cases like Jensen’s.
Jensen says she was pestering officials who could do nothing about her case because she didn’t know who was responsible for paper work needed to collect money from her ex-husband.
“I found out that, since June of ’78, I had been talking to the wrong department,” she says.
Lack of Uniformity Cited
She hopes through ACES to educate other single parents on the complex steps that a support order can take through many agencies. Collecting money from absent parents in other states is more difficult because of a lack of uniformity between state agencies and difficulties enforcing support orders across state lines.
Jensen turned down Galvin’s recent offer to provide ACES members with forms to list problems collecting overdue support and the officials whom they contacted. The judge said she would trace each case turned in and personally respond to each person who filled out a form.
“We feel it would be very easy if we turn them in 25 to 30 names per month, and they’d solve those 25 or 30 problems,” Jensen says. “We don’t want to do that. We want a system that works for everyone. . . . It needs to be a long-term solution.”
ACES hopes to found chapters nationwide. For now, it is targeting Ohio for statewide changes in the child-support system. Jensen points to a federal study, published in the Oct. 5, 1984, Federal Register, that rates only two states below Ohio in the success of child-support collection programs and says she’s determined to force improvements in the system.
That, Galvin says, may be ACES’ best goal.
Court in ‘No-Win Situation’
“They have to be effective by getting on state commissions and demanding that child support (payments) be treated like taxes, that they’re taken out to begin with,” Galvin says. “Until then, all you’re doing is putting the court in a no-win situation.”
Jensen says improvements are more likely to be made in correlation to how loud ACES’ members can complain about bureaucratic tangles.
To a degree, judges agree with that too.
“They’ve done one thing,” Galvin says. “They’ve made our job easier. Every time they’re on the news, it makes it easier to collect child support because people know there is a problem.”