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Melle talks about child support legislation

 

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Drew, from left, Andrea and Kerrie Melle sit together for a photo inside their home Thursday in Havre.

Editor’s note: This version corrects how much Andrea Melle earns working for St. Jude Thaddeus Church.

While high school graduation may feel exciting to some, Havreite Andrea Melle, divorced mother of two adults with autistic spectrum disorders, said the future which follows is filled with uncertainty.

"As a society, we see it as a must that a child is financially supported, legally, through their childhood until the age of majority if there is a divorce or if the parents are not together," Melle said in a written statement to the Legislature. "It should also be a must that a parent helps to financially support their child with disabilities for the life of that parent. The child's disability, needs and expenses do not end then the child with disabilities is 18 or 19 and are no longer in school; in fact, they increase as services become more limited."

Earlier this year, Melle, asked state Reps. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, and Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, to write and introduce House Bill 726, which would extend the period of child support obligations for children with disabilities when the custodial parent is the caregiver. April 1 the bill was passed out of the House 65 to 34 and will be heard today in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee.

Melle, who cares for her daughter, Kerrie, 21, and son, Drew, 19, said in an interview that in the state of Montana people can either be a guardian or a paid caregiver, not both.

"I chose to be my children's guardian because keeping them safe mentally, physically, emotionally and financially was way more important than being paid to care for them," Melle said. "I am a mom. I should not have to be paid to care for my own children. They cannot make medical or financial decisions on their own and there is no one else to step up and help."

Melle said that an average day, because her son has a hard time staying asleep, she and her son get up at 5:30 a.m. After taking her son to school, she said, she takes her daughter to work at the Havre-Hill County Library, where her daughter works the minimum allowed for part time, nine to 11 hours a week.

"Not only do I run kids back and forth and have appointments and meetings but I also have to be 'on-call' for if the kids if they need me while they are at school or work," she added.

For example, she said, if her son is having a hard time at school, she will need to pick him up at a moments notice.

"So even if I have a couple mornings a week where I may have a couple hours to myself, I am always on call or am doing my appointments, or volunteering or getting things done around the house I can't do when Drew is here," she said. "Many think I sit here all day eating bon bons, and that is far from the truth."

Melle said she also works cleaning St. Jude Thaddeus Church, making $150 a month. Because her son needs to be constantly cared for and watched, she said, she takes him with her, where she is able to teach him some job skills. In their free time, she said, her son also likes to get involved with recycling. She said that the job works for her schedule and allows her to take care of her family when needed.

She grew up in St. Jude's, she said, and the church plays a big roll for her family. Her daughter is also involved in the church choir.

"We are just always busy," she said.

In their free time, her children enjoy using their electronic devices, she said, but they are not on them all the time. As part of their autism - which are communication and behavior disorders - electronics are a great thing for them, where nobody judges them. They need a routine and a structure or schedule they can follow.

She said the routines are common things most people do, but most are able to quit in time because the children are 3 and they are going to day care or they're 18 and they can move on and go off to college.

"This is my life for the rest of my life," she said. "This is their life; they are not every going to be able to live out there on their own."

When it is nice outside, she said, her family likes to hike and go out into the mountains. Melle said they often go out to Fresno Reservoir or hang out at home and play games and wrestle.

"We definitely do more in the summer when it is nicer out," she said.

She added that Kerrie likes to read and Drew likes making videos and collecting "Little Bear" video tapes.

"They are thriving," Melle said. "They are doing pretty well."

Why the bill is needed

In July 2005, she found out both of her kids were autistic, she said, and in 2015 her divorce from her husband was finalized.

When she was going through her divorce, she said, she was told by her attorney at the time a law required lifetime support for children with special needs. But as the proceedings continued, her attorney then told her such a law didn't exist, but told her not to worry and they would deal with the issue when the divorce proceedings came to legal guardianship of her son. She added that she already had legal guardianship of her daughter at the time.

"I trusted her," she said.

Because of the advice of her attorney, she said, she let her ex-husband go with minimum child support.

Later her lawyer quit practicing, she said, and she hired another attorney who discovered that her action under the advise of her former attorney caused her to waive all of her rights. Melle said her new attorney then told her if she tried to go back to court it could cost her thousands of dollars and she would would most likely lose the case.

"I was kind of shocked that there was not a law here," Melle said.

Melle said she posted something about her experience on a Facebook page where found out she was not alone and similar things have happened to other single parents of disabled children.

"I'm just like, that is just not right and it irritated me to no end," she said.

She said that to hire a full-time caregiver it would cost $20 an hour, costing her more than $40,000 a year. The caregiver would also not be able to get her her children involved with the community the way she does and they would have to stay in the house for most of the day. Melle added that she can't find a job which would cover the cost.

Another option would to be to put her children in a home for their care, which would cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 dollars a year. She added that she would never consider that choice, in her opinion it would not the right choice for her family.

"I am it when he graduates," she said. "... That's it, my quiet time and any alone time I have, which is very minimal, the way it is now, will be over and done with. But that's ok, that is what it is."

Melle said she began to research lifetime support for children with disabilities and found out that in Montana, both parents have to agree in it, but both don't always agree.

More than 30 other states have a law similar to House Bill 726, she said. She added that she was happy other states had the law but many people and families in Montana are struggling, like she is.

She said that Montana had a case she read about where one woman had to take her case to the Montana Supreme Court because her former spouse refused to pay for lifetime child care. The woman had very high-need children who couldn't communicate on their own, had feeding tubes and were wheelchair-bound. While that woman ultimately won her case, Melle said, she, like many others, doesn't have the strength or the financial capability to take her case to the supreme court.

But after children turn 18, their needs don't go away, their disability doesn't end, she added.

House Bill 726

Melle said that the bill doesn't affect taxpayers. Not having it does affect taxpayers because if families can't make it financially each month then they are on food stamps or medicaid.

"It's just common sense," she said. "... How can you vote against this?"

She said some people have said the children are past the age of majority and therefore should not be covered by child support.

The needs are still there, Melle said. In fact, they go up with expenses rising as they get older.

"I still need to keep a roof over their head," she said.

She said she was contacted by Rep. Mary Caferro when Caferro called her about a completely different matter regarding budget cuts. While speaking to her, Melle told her about the state not having a law about long term care.

"She was shocked," Melle said. "She didn't know that. So that was that and that is what kind of got the ball rolling."

She said that she also spoke to Rep. Jacob Bachmeier and to former state Senate candidate Paul Tuss, while he was still running.

"There needs to be a law. That is just the right thing to do," she said.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Drew Melle watches cartoons after arriving home from school Thursday in Havre. Melle, whose mother, Andrea, says he does not enjoy school, is counting down the days until he finishes classes and is done with school.

Bachmeier and Caferro have been very kind and understanding, she said.They see the need is there.

If the bill is passed, she said, she would have a one-month gap before it goes into effect and would have to take her former spouse to court to have it activate.

"I hope I have some support," she said. "I feel like it is just morally right. (Caferro) said a lot of parents do the right thing but sometimes you have to make them do the right thing."

Melle said that the whole experience for her has been very eye-opening and at times very tiring and very discouraging but, the battle needs to be fought.

"I just hope it passes, I hope everyone calls their senators and make them realize just how much of a need this is," she said. "This is not about me, it's never been about me, this is about making sure that these kids with disabilities are taken care of for their entire life by both parents financially, not just one."

 

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