Case closed on deadbeat dad boxer
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2011
5/18/12 at 8:15 AM
Beatrice Johnson feels like she's been in a boxing match for 22 years.
The single mother has had a decades-long family case in Tulsa County District Court seeking child support from a man known worldwide as a former heavyweight contender.
Paying less than $2,600 since 1990, James "Quick" Tillis told a judge on Dec. 1 he lives on just Supplemental Security Income for a disability he blames on his boxing career.
The judge closed the case, but the debt of $140,341 - $68,232 in principal and $70,789 in accrued interest - will remain.
"He still owes that, he will always owe that," Johnson said. "But I'm the one now who has the burden of proof for him to pay. He never made any attempt to pay.
"Mr. Tillis has not always been broke or on SSI disability. During those boxing years, he had some big purses. But now that he's on SSI, they just dismiss it? It was purely by choice that his debt for child support was not paid."
Tillis lives in New Mexico with his wife, Vanessa. He did not respond to letters or emails seeking comment.
The closure is among 40,688 child-support cases in Oklahoma closed in the past 12 months, according to the state Department of Human Services.
During that same time, however, DHS has opened nearly 47,000 cases, said spokesman Jeff Wagner.
"Cases that quickly go through a cycle of opening and closing are almost universally those where someone on the case is repeatedly on and off of some form of state assistance," Wagner stated in an email.
Also, SoonerCare online enrollment triggers an automated referral to child support enforcement, which has caused a higher than normal turnover in the past year.
Wagner said that is a glitch in the automated system the agency is working with the Oklahoma Health Care Authority to remedy.
DHS has 201,842 active cases, higher than the 195,922 cases last year at this time, Wagner said.
DHS estimates unpaid child support in Oklahoma will top $2 billion by May 2012. This amount includes all currently open cases, some of which go back to the beginning of the program in the 1970s.
'Held out hope'
In child-support cases, statutory formulas are used to determine payments, which are approved in judicial orders containing the penalty of jail time for contempt of those orders.
DHS has the power to track down deadbeat parents and intercept income such as tax returns and worker's compensation. The agency can also revoke passports and licenses, including driving, hunting and professional licenses.
The Tillis court hearing was for a state request to revoke his driver's license, which the judge denied and found him unable to make a child-support payment. Johnson has 60 days to appeal.
Also, Social Security does not issue disability payments to adult children of disabled parents, only to minor children.
When a parent applies for government benefits, DHS automatically begins the process of establishing paternity and child support.
The stepped up child-support enforcement comes from welfare reform of the mid-'90s. As more non-custodial parents pay support, less welfare is needed.
In recent years, Oklahoma has shifted to include more social work into enforcement by creating court liaisons and making referrals to community resources to help parents with growing debt.
"Although past-due child support is expressed as a total dollar amount, the goal of child support is to provide reliable, ongoing financial support of the child, something the family can rely on and budget around," Wagner stated.
However, there are specific circumstances in which a case may be closed, such as being permanently disabled with no assets, like Tillis claims to be.
Case closure means DHS no longer has legal involvement in the collection or distribution of child support.
"This is a debt he owes and now no one is going to work it or go after it," Johnson said. "I have student loans, and those will never go away. So why is child-support any different?
"I feel like I've been at war for 22 years and DHS just threw up the white flag. I always held out hope (Tillis) would one day say, 'I'm so sorry I did that to you and I'll do right from now on.' I still feel that way."
In his prime, Tillis traveled the world as he took on boxing legends such as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, resulting in purses as high as $200,000 a bout. Industry estimates of his career winnings are as high as $10 million.
His career includes 65 matches, spanning from 1978 to 2001. He has 22 knockout wins in a record of 42-22-1.
Along the way, he married six times and has several children. DHS has gotten involved in at least two paternity and child-support cases in Tulsa County, and he faced an Osage County felony charge in 1999 for not paying support.
Tillis spent four months in the Tulsa Jail in 2002 for violating an order on Johnson's mandated support.
He was inducted into New York's Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame and has received the Mastrella Integrity Award.
Former Oklahoma governors Frank Keating and Brad Henry proclaimed a James "Quick" Tillis Day during their terms, calling him a "role model."
"He isn't a role model for other fathers," Johnson said. "He has not treated his own children well, and charity should always begin at home."
Tillis also made his way into entertainment by playing the abusive boyfriend to Oprah Winfrey's character in "The Color Purple." Residuals from the movie have been intercepted for child support.
"That's about the only thing we've received," Johnson said. "And that's just about $30 or $50 here and there."
Tillis also fell on hard and desperate times, becoming penniless. At one point, he lived in a sparsely furnished rented apartment including a bed he built out of plywood and 2x4s.
Johnson said she met Tillis as a senior at the University of Tulsa and had a relationship with him for about a year when she unexpectedly became pregnant.
Initially, Johnson relied on government benefits for help with her daughter. But over the years, she got off welfare by working at least two jobs.
"He said she (his daughter) would never want for anything," she said. "And she hasn't, because I worked hard to make sure of that. It wasn't because of him."
Despite their estrangement, Johnson said she always wanted her daughter to have a relationship with Tillis.
Their daughter, now 22 and a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, was accepted into Boston's Berkley College of Music, but she could not afford tuition after the first year. She is now finishing her degree at the University of Central Oklahoma.
"I've always tried not to interfere with them," Johnson said. "They talk. ... and she keeps the door open. He thought I got in the way of them, but I never did. She's a child, and children know who is there for them."
Main reasons in closing a child-support case:
- Zero balance
- Non-custodial parent is a foreign citizen and residing in a country with no reciprocal agreement
- Non-custodial parent has died and has no estate
- Cannot establish paternity and child is over 18
- Cannot locate non-custodial parent and Social Security number unknown
- Non-custodial parent is permanently institutionalized or disabled and has no assets
- Insufficient information to locate non-custodial parent for three years
- No longer current support order and order unenforceable under state law
In August 2010, the Tulsa World profiled James "Quick" Tillis' struggles financially since leaving the ring. This is the video that accompanied that profile.
Original Print Headline: DHS case closed on deadbeat dad boxing star
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
James "Quick" Tillis lived in a small apartment in Brittany Square in Tulsa in January 2010, when this portrait was shot. ADAM WISNESKI/Tulsa World