Ashley Smith and Donovan Miles dated for five years, but the two began to grow apart after the birth of their now 7-year-old son. Smith, 23, says the stress of being teenage parents was exacerbated by the fact that the 26-year-old Miles had a daughter with another woman and went to prison for nine months on drug charges. In late August, the former couple was in the courtroom of District Court Judge Sean R. Delahanty as Smith tried to collect back child support from her former boyfriend.
In Jefferson County, non-custodial parents can face criminal charges if they are more than $1,000 behind or six month in arrears on child support payments. Delahanty could have ordered Miles onto home incarceration or even sentenced him to jail time. But in this case, the judge continued the proceeding until November, when Miles is supposed to bring his pay stubs from his minimum wage job at Quality Inn and a copy of the child-support order pertaining to his daughter. Miles’ employer has been deducting money from his check for child support, but his take-home pay is so low that federal rules bar the company from taking out enough to cover both child support orders. In addition, Miles is also still in Drug Court, which comes with its own set of fees.
“I am reluctant to put you back in prison for child support when you are working and staying away from drugs,” Delahanty says. “But we’ve got to figure out a way to resolve this situation. You’ve got to pay your child support even it takes finding a better job.”
On his way out of the courtroom, Miles is stopped by a pretty, young blonde woman. Ashley Anderson is the courtroom reporter for “Deadbeat — Kentuckiana Child Support Court,” a 30-minute legal program that airs nightly at 7 p.m. on WBNA-21. The show takes viewers inside the Jefferson County Child Support Court where they watch cases presided over by Delahanty and fellow District Court Judge Erica Lee Williams. This is actually Miles’ second appearance since the show began airing in June. After answering a few questions from Anderson, he sits on a bench outside the courtroom to wait for his public defender.
“The first time they told me that I was going to be on TV, I was like, ‘whoa, that’s my private business,’” Miles admits. “But I guess I’m all right with it now. The show does give you both sides of the case. I really don’t consider myself a deadbeat because I’m trying.”
“Deadbeat” is structured similar to other courtroom reality shows like “Judge Judy” or “People’s Court.” The cases are introduced by the show’s host Carolyn Gaeta McLean, a former WAVE-3 reporter. After Delahanty or Williams rules, Anderson interviews the participants in the case. Then the show cuts from the Hall of Justice to the studio where attorney Nichole Taylor Compton joins McLean to provide viewers with some legal commentary.
“The big difference between this and other courtroom shows is that it’s really unscripted,” Compton says. “There are a few things that are scripted, like the commentary and the intros. But for the most part, what you see is what you get. We don’t have to make it up. That’s really how people come in court. That’s really how they interact. That’s really how the judges are.”
According to Bill Patterson, Communications Director for the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office, there are 60,000 active child-support cases in the county. Not all of those are delinquent accounts, but there are enough of them to keep the “Deadbeat” producers busy for a long time. All the criminal child-support cases start in District Court, but they some are also handled in Family Court, which is part of the Circuit Court system.
“Deadbeat” might be the only legal show where some defendants are brought into court directly from the Louisville Metro Corrections – orange jumpsuit and all. The producers record all the child-support cases heard in District Court by Delahanty and Williams, but the show tends to focus on the most sensational cases. Recent episodes have featured a man who had 15 children with 14 different women and a case that involved heroin and a murder investigation.
BMB Productions, the company that produces the popular “Secrets of Louisville Chefs,” is responsible for “Deadbeat” in partnership with WBNA. Executive producer Mike Lattin says his company is allowed to film the child support proceedings because Jefferson County courts are open to the public. In 2010, the Hall of Justice even installed its own video recording system, so any private citizen can go down there and order a video copy of the proceedings from a specific case.
“Regardless of if we are there are not, the participants are warned that they are being filmed,” Lattin explains. “They are all recorded for on-the-record sake. We simply record it in our own entertaining fashion with a little more production value. It is surprising every day. We are pretty creative people, but we couldn’t make some of this stuff up.
“People hear reality television and they think it has got to be stupid. I like to call it non-fiction television. Reality TV has its own stigma that it has developed through shows like ‘Jersey Shore.’ Here in Louisville, we do it right.”
“Deadbeat” is the brainchild of Ron Burrell, a mutual friend of Compton and WBNA general manager Tom Fawbush. In her private practice, Compton, who is also a candidate for Jefferson District Court Judge Division 1, represents a lot of fathers in child-support cases. She has even given seminars on fathers’ rights. In 2010, Burrell approached her and the judges with the idea for the show. Williams says she was told that he picked her and Delahanty because they had outgoing personalities that would translate well on television. Compton says everyone agreed immediately because they saw it as a way to teach the public how the child support system works.
“One of the reasons I’m doing the show is to educate people and give them the tools they need,” Williams says. “The whole situation of coming to court is scary. People are afraid to go in there, even if they didn’t do anything wrong. The show takes some of that intimidation factor away. With it being local TV, my analysis is consistent with the rules in Jefferson County courts. You can look at the show and be entertained, but at the same time you might have a relative that is going through the same thing.”
Fawbush admits he wasn’t initially so receptive to the idea for the show. The concept was a little too out of the box for him. His station produced a few sales-related programs like “21 Live,” but it had never done anything on the scale of “Deadbeat.” But he the idea grew on him because he realized reality television is a permanent part of the television landscape. Over the last decade, more and more channels have turned to reality shows because they don’t require expensive sets or star salaries. Fawbush brought BMB onboard because he knew they were already producing topnotch local programming.
“I think the future of local television is to focus on local programming,” he contends. “That’s really the only niche that local stations have. BMB discovered this years ago with the ‘Secrets of Louisville Chefs.’ They created a unique, local brand and made it a very positive program. We’ve talked about exporting the ‘Deadbeat’ concept to other markets. If we do, it will be that city’s version of child support court and not simply what is happening in Jefferson County.”
Lattin adds, “If the show is entertaining here, it’s entertaining everywhere. The main thing about what we are doing here is that it’s in your hometown. You might see someone you know. Certainly you deal with the same people, the judges are the same. There are a dozen or so court shows on the air. This is the only show done from a real courtroom in Louisville.”
Because WBNA does not subscribe to the Nielson media reporting, there are no ratings to examine, but there is anecdotal evidence that people are watching. All of the show’s cast members have stories about being stopped by viewers who want to discuss various cases or characters from specific episodes. In July, when the show had only been airing for a month, Delahanty went to a Catholic Church picnic where he was approach by a man who said that he’d come across the show while channel surfing the night before.
“I’ve been sitting on the bench for 16 years and I’ve never really gotten recognized in public when I was out of my robe,” the judge remarks. “I’m not doing the show to get famous. I don’t play to the camera. I’m doing my job, which is to make sure that people pay their child support. The show is a way to let people know what can happen if they don’t pay what they are supposed to.”
Williams echoes that sentiment. As the only African-American District Court Judge in Kentucky, she did not need the show to gain recognition. Williams, who has been on the bench for five years, has a reputation for making a personal connection with the people that appear in her court. She has sentenced defendants to complete their GED so they can improve their incomes or complete drug programs before their next court appearance. She even continues to monitor some people after their cases have been resolved.
“People don’t come to my court because they missed one child support payment,” Williams says. “They are here because there is a problem. For me, the show is an opportunity to let the public see exactly what we do. It’s not just about punishment. If someone appears before me owing $20,000, that could seem overwhelming to them. They could want to just give up because they are never going to be able to pay it. I try to come up with feasible solution that will end with them supporting their, and hopefully having a relationship with their, children.”
Despite its good intentions, “Deadbeat” has been the target of criticism in the legal community. Several local defense attorneys described the show as exploitative and worried that the outcome of cases might be impacted by the fact that the judges know potential voters are watching. However, none of these lawyers would comment on the record because they might one day appear before Delahanty or Williams.
Defendants in child support cases can pay $52 for a public defender if they can’t afford a private attorney. Public defender Nathaniel Miller, who has appeared on several episodes of “Deadbeat,” did not want to speak on the behalf of his office about the show. But Miller did point out that most of the defendants that appear on television have already pleaded guilty and the courtroom proceedings are about finding some form of punishment other than jail for them. The director of the Public Defender’s office did not return calls for comment before deadline.
The success of “Deadbeat” has also brought some unwanted attention to the various cast members. Compton, in particular, has faced harsh public scrutiny. In August, WAVE-3 reporter John Boel did a story that basically accused her of being a hypocrite for participating in the show since she filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2011. The headline on the station’s website reads, “Is the Deadbeat co-host a deadbeat?” One viewer even commented, “I’ve never seen the show, and never will, but I’m surprised Ms. Compton, a candidate for judge, would even consider participating in such a ratchet show, even if her role seems innocuous. The show seems beneath her.”
Compton says she considers Boel’s report more of a personal attack than a news story. “I sought a legal remedy for my financial problems after my husband left,” she says. “It was a situation where I had to worry about how I was going to support myself and my child. That’s my past and I’ve been very open about it. I’ve even given seminars that touched on the situation. I don’t consider it the same as being behind on child-support because in those cases there is a child who is going without.”
Another area of concern has been the cozy relationship between the “Deadbeat” staff and officials at the Hall of Justice. The show films on Mondays and Fridays. On the two occasions when LEO visited the courtroom, the atmosphere was surprisingly lax. Both times Delahanty was on the bench. “Deadbeat” crew members walked back and forth into an area for courthouse employees that housed a break room and, while other cases were being heard, Anderson stood by the benches calling out the names of litigants that she wanted to interview.
All of the “Deadbeat” participants we talked to denied that the show is weighted toward the prosecution or that it purposely makes the defendants in the child-support cases look bad. Patterson also adds that the show has no affiliation with the County Attorney’s office. “The show’s producers made a request through the open records law for a list of the worst child support offenders and we supplied that,” he says. “It is too soon to tell if the program has affected our ability to collect back payments.”
McLean thinks the criticism of the show is unfair. She says “Deadbeat” is important because it helps to disperse myths about the people caught up in the child support system. “The white, single mothers who are not custodian parents, that’s a shock to most people,” she says. “The program can really be eye-opening to some viewers. Other reality television is about highlighting problems. We highlight the problem, but our focus is on solving the problem. That is what makes our show different.”
Anderson says “Deadbeat” also gives participants a chance to get things off their chest that they can’t say in court. “At first I thought we were making just another reality television show,” she says. “But people really share their stories with us. Sometimes we can even help connect them with resources they didn’t know about. I think we’re really doing a lot of good for the community.”