Janet Sparks had a plan for her career, but life had other ideas. Sparks worked her final day as Orange County’s Director of Child Support Services on Aug. 31, a job that turned into a calling and lasted almost 38 years.
Sparks will be replaced on an interim basis by Erica Bryant, Orange County’s current Child Support Assistant Director, while the county searches for a permanent replacement.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1970s, Sparks worked as a paralegal and for a management consultant company. A lifelong learner, she returned to UNC and earned a Master’s in teaching in 1977. She figured she would eventually get into teaching civics, history or geography. Instead of teaching about local government, however, she wound up working in the field for four decades.
Sparks began her tenure with Orange County in January 1980. She had been working for Durham, County as a Child Support Officer when she was hired by Sam Gattis, who was Orange County’s first county manager. She may be the last Orange County employee who has worked for every manager in the county’s history.
Sparks said she was attracted to child support because she liked helping people.
“I really have enjoyed the work,” she said. “There is still a good amount of person-to-person interaction.”
She was a one-woman department who hit the ground running. When she was first hired, the county helped collect about $10,000 a month in child support payments. Now, her department of 13 employees brings in almost half a million dollars each month, funds that are used to improve the quality of life for families in the county. “The collections are such an important source of income for families,” she said.
Currently the longest-serving Orange County employee, and the longest ever to serve as a department head, Sparks has seen a lot of change, particularly in her field.
“Laws and attitudes,” she said when asked about how child support has changed. “The laws have really changed, but attitudes have changed, too. Many employers were resistant to use income withholding for an employees' child support payments. They didn’t want to become involved in what they thought was their employee’s personal issue. People think a family should take care of itself without government intervention. Now, I think society has realized how important child support really is. Most parents, employers and the public recognize the importance of our work and our role as an advocate for families.”
At her final meeting of Orange County Department Heads in August, each staff person was asked to tell a story about Janet. Almost every one of them mentioned that she had been one of the first department heads to reach out to them when they were first hired, offering advice on any number of topics and welcoming them to the county.
Lifelong friendships were formed from this simple act, and many tears were shed during the meeting that day.
Sparks says she is looking forward to retirement and spending more time with her husband, Roger, two daughters and one son-in-law and one grandchild. Her parents, Madison and Gerri Crum, still live in Hillsborough.
As for finally achieving her original plan of going into teaching when she retires, she shakes her head and smiles. “I always thought I would after I retired, but now I don’t’ think so,” she said. “I look forward to getting up, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, and not having to be somewhere by eight o’clock. That sounds really attractive to me right now.”
Child support honored by state
Orange County Child Support was recently honored by the state of North Carolina as one of only three counties (along with Bladen and Watauga) that met or exceeded every performance standard established by the state. “The performance standards in North Carolina for child support are higher than federal standards,” she said. “It is difficult to meet them, but we did it this past year.”