Bill MacKenzie didn’t know when he accepted a job clerking at the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office in 1981 that it was the beginning of a 30-plus year career.
Now MacKenzie, who for more than 20 years has led the Sarpy office’s child support division, is moving on.
This week, he started as a statewide child support referee, a position in which he hears child support cases to lighten the load of district court judges.
MacKenzie, 57, has dozens of stories from his role prosecuting child support cases: the pilot who conceived a baby during a layover, the drummer who got a woman pregnant while on tour. Then there were the phone calls from a parent a week before a holiday, saying the other parent quit paying support and the family was going to be evicted if something wasn’t done.
“They’re not being facetious — they’re serious,” he said. “Trying to track the person down may be the difference if a kid gets a Christmas or not, whether they are living in a homeless shelter.”
When he first started, MacKenzie said, the goal was to get the biggest child support order possible because that was believed to be the best way to help kids. But people realized that doesn’t always work, because if a noncustodial parent can’t pay, the custodial parent has false hope about money that never materializes.
“And it creates a defeatist attitude with the noncustodial parent that they’ve got a hill too steep to climb,” he said.
Today the child support office tries to look at a parent’s true economic circumstance and find a middle ground that sets the initial support obligation lower until higher payments can be maintained.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said MacKenzie ran a solid operation and handled a high caseload. The office that handles paternity establishment and child support enforcement has about 7,500 pending cases a year. Each case includes at least one child and at least two parents.
“It’s very important work,” Polikov said. “I take pride that he did such a good job.”
A Creighton University School of Law graduate, MacKenzie started at the Sarpy office a year before graduation. He was a full-time juvenile attorney, then moved on to handling misdemeanor and felony cases. In 1993, he took over the child support division.
Vickie Raymond, the child support office’s operating manager, who recently celebrated 34 years with the office, described MacKenzie as “just amazing.”
“We’ve claimed many successes in here” with him, she said.
In his new role, MacKenzie primarily will handle seven counties — Sarpy, Cass, Adams, Hall, Buffalo, Platte and Madison — with a goal of hearing cases more quickly.
The position, which is appointed by the Nebraska Supreme Court, opened up after Sue Symonds of O’Neill announced her retirement. She’d spent 18 years as referee.
Douglas and Lancaster Counties have their own referees.
MacKenzie called mental illness and chemical dependency the two biggest obstacles to collecting support. He said referees can address a person’s struggles through court orders requiring them to find treatment or complete a GED program.
Although people can be sentenced to jail, he said, that’s not always the best solution because it costs the taxpayer money and doesn’t collect support.
“You can kind of gently push people in the right direction to get help for themselves,” he said. “If they owe child support, they probably owe all kinds of other debts.”
MacKenzie said his ultimate goal is to have a positive impact on families.
“I’m just excited,” he said. “I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge over 20 years, and I’m excited to put it to use.”
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