As he prepares to go to war, soldier faces DHS red tape
By James Beaty
— Retha Gail Whitlock kept a brave face as long as she could.
It started with her chin, which slightly trembled, almost imperceptibly at first. A single tear streamed down her cheek, followed by one more and then another.
Finally, she lowered her head, unable to hold back a flood of tears which had been welling up inside her for the past few days.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I told myself I was going to be strong.”
Retha Gail looked at her husband, National Guardsmen Brian Whitlock, who is set to report for active duty on Oct. 21 before going on to Fort Bliss, Texas, and then deployment to the war in Iraq.
She said she’s concerned about him, as well as her stepson Daniel Whitlock and their cousin, Jeremy Snow — a trio of family members who joined the National Guard together as a family unit last year.
But her worries about the war weren’t the only reason for her tears. She feels that while her family members will be fighting overseas for their country, the state of Oklahoma — or at least some of its agents or employees — has dealt her a crushing blow, a blow that’s almost too much to bear.
“I’m terrified for him over there,” she said. “I told him not to worry about us. We’ll be all right.”
But she acknowledges a few seconds later she has her doubts. She said she doesn’t know how she’ll put food on the table, pay co-payments for medical bills or buy clothes for the family she has at home.
Over the past week, the Whitlocks said the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, working through KiBois Community Action, first froze, then seized, every last cent they had in a joint banking account.
A lien is already placed on anything that will be added — which means that every penny Whitlock is paid while in Iraq can be seized, since his National Guard pay is electronically deposited, he said.
The Whitlocks said it all has to do with child support payments that Brian Whitlock pays to two different women who are mothers of his children.
The guardsman wanted to make it clear that he’s not trying to get out of his child support payments.
“I owe it,” he said — and he’s been paying it. He has check stubs from his job at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, which show where the payments are automatically deducted, as proof. Whitlock said KiBois has told him the deductions are not only for his current payments, but include payments on what he owes in arrears, as well.
He’s not complaining about that.
The Whitlocks said their problems escalated when Brian Whitlock went to KiBois, which handles some child support enforcement for the DHS, to try and have his child support payments modified while he’s fighting in Iraq. He said he won’t be making as much fighting the war as he does at McAAP.
Whitlock said he went to KiBois on his own, because he wanted to report that he would no longer be getting his McAAP check once he reported for duty, but instead would be getting a check for his National Guard service.
“That’s why I went down,” he said. “I didn’t want to get behind. When my check at McAAP stopped and I got my Army check, they could deduct it.”
As proof of his lower income while he’s in the National Guard, Whitlock said he brought along a chart given to guardsmen which shows them how to figure their pay by computing their years of service with their rank.
It shows that an E-4, such as Whitlock, with 18 years of service is paid $2,062.80 a month — which is less than his McAAP pay.
Whitlock also has a letter from his commander, Capt. Cameron C. Lehanhan.
“Purpose of this memorandum is to certify SPC/E-4 Brian Keith Whitlock’s monthly gross earnings will be $2,062.80 for the period 18 Oct. 2007 through the end of our deployment sometime late in 2008,” the letter states.
However, Whitlock said a caseworker at KiBois told him he was wrong.
“They said somebody had done some legwork and said I would be making much more than at my civilian job,” he said. Whitlock said he asked the source of the information.
“They said they could not disclose it to me,” he said.
When Whitlock said he would not agree with what KiBois wanted, he said he was told he would be given a hearing date. A document signed by Administrative Law Judge Javier Ramirez set the hearing date for Oct. 29 — which is eight days after Brian Whitlock is to report for duty prior to his deployment to Iraq.
The document also contains a statement: “This is the notice of the hearing. Parties are advised that failure to appear may result in a default judgment.”
That stunned Whitlock, who said he had told an attorney at KiBois twice that he must report for duty on Oct. 21.
Several days later, DHS placed the lien on the Whitlocks’ joint checking account. Retha Whitlock said most of the money had been hers, including money from a check her mother wrote to help pay for her daughter’s wedding and ironically, a check to reimburse her for expenses incurred by buying things for foster children the Whitlocks have taken into their home.
Documents presented to the Whitlocks have an 800 number listing the name of a caseworker with KiBois. However, a phone call from the News-Capital was obviously connected to a call center at another site.
Ultimately, the News-Capital connected with Gary W. Dart, state head of the Child Support Division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in Oklahoma City.
He noted that it’s legal for DHS to place liens on bank accounts if money is owed for child support in certain situations.
“It’s pretty much an automatic thing that’s done by computers,” he said.
A seizure of a bank account might be set off by computer if someone does not make at least five of six child support payments that are required, according to Dart.
Later, Brian Whitlock said there’s no way he could have missed a payment — because the payments are automatically deducted from his McAAP checks before being deposited in his account.
Speaking of bank account seizures in general for child support payments, Dart noted such seizures are legal.
While Retha Gail Whitlock is not a party to the case, “She chose to co-mingle her funds with his,” Dart said.
It may be legal, but is it moral to take Retha Gail Whitlock’s money and leave her own family with nothing?
Dart acknowledged that it’s not, and said not only should Brian Whitlock be entitled to a hearing on the deduction issue, but that his wife should be entitled to a hearing of her own regarding the seized bank account.
“I assume she will get a hearing,” Dart said.
“She needs an opportunity” to present her case, he said.
Dart said he could not give the family legal advice, but there are some things the Whitlocks have a right to know.
For example, deposit slips Retha Gail Whitlock may have signed could track how much of her own money she put into the joint account.
He seemed surprised that Brian Whitlock’s hearing had been set for several days after he has to report for duty before deployment to a war zone.
Dart said if there’s absolutely no way Whitlock can be present, he might consider giving power of attorney to his wife, or perhaps present his case by phone.
Whitlock said later that the telephone had already been suggested, but he can’t guarantee he will have access to one at the time of the hearing while preparing for deployment.
He also said that no one had informed the family that his wife should have the right to a hearing of her own.
Meanwhile, Retha Gail’s anger at her treatment has given way to something else.
“I guess I got all the anger out,”she said.
“Now it’s down to hurt.”
Looking at her husband, Retha Gail said “It’s hard for us to enjoy our last few weeks together.”
Meanwhile, Dart expressed concern that Brian Whitlock’s case may be being delayed unnecessarily.
“He needs to be specially treated — not just be the next number that comes up on the computer,” Dart said.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com
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Retha Gail Whitlock expresses her hurt and frustration on Friday as her husband, National Guardsman Brian Whitlock, sits beside her. She said the family’s bank account has been seized and drained by the state — and a hearing to contest related issues won’t be held until after he has to report for deployment to Iraq. Photojournalist