Terry Decker’s knowledge and interest in child support issues is unquestionable. The former Boeing engineer has nearly made a full-time job of having a say in child-support policy and he easily cites family-law statutes and court rules as he enthusiastically talks about the most intricate details of the subject.
His history of violence is also unquestionable. According to Maricopa County Superior Court records, Decker pled guilty in 2008 to aggravated assault and interference with or disruption of an educational facility for a February 2007 incident in which he punched a teacher while taking his children out of school, in violation of his custody agreement.
Decker, 61, who has been unemployed and receiving Social Security disability payments for mental health issues for about five years, is now Senate President Russell Pearce’s choice for a seat on the 21-member Child Support Committee after a recommendation and his credentials — minus the criminal record — made it to Pearce’s desk, and no one conducted a background check.
“For this particular one, I know there was no checking of the background,” said Mike Philipsen, a spokesman for Pearce and the Senate Republican caucus.
The Child Support Committee, which lawmakers created in 2002 and is made up of lawmakers, judges, assistant attorney generals, Department of Economic Security staff and members of the public who are knowledgeable in child support issues. The legislative committee prepares an annual report on findings and recommendations pertaining to child support policies, but it has been dormant in recent years because of the state budget crisis.
In a written response to questions about why he appointed Decker, Pearce said he seemed well qualified. However, Pearce would not say who recommended Decker, and only characterized those people as “some friends in the East Valley.”
Finding qualified people to sit on the multitude of committees that have many seats is a challenge, and disqualifying people on the basis of a criminal record would make it even more challenging, Pearce said.
“I have every reason to believe Mr. Decker will be a strong voice for noncustodial parents and an excellent member of the Child Support Committee,” Pearce said in the statement.
Philipsen said background checks aren’t routinely done on citizens appointed to any of the Senate legislative committees. The House vets its appointments, though the process may vary depending on the person and the appointment, said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for House Speaker Andy Tobin and the House Republican caucus.
“There is no check at this level for the background of the applicants,” Philipsen said.
Scarpinato said the House doesn’t have a formal vetting process, but staff does make an effort to do a cursory background check on every applicant.
“They don’t do fingerprints or hire private investigators, but I think if there’s a reason to look up someone’s history with the court system or law enforcement, then that might be something to be checked into. I think that’s probably been done in the past,” Scarpinato said.
Scarpinato said the vetting process hasn’t found any rotten apples in the past few years.
“We feel comfortable with everybody who has gone through the process,” Scarpinato said.
Decker said background checks aren’t necessary.
“What they are interested in is your level of knowledge,” said Decker.
He developed his knowledge by virtue of the continuing child custody issues stemming from his 1999 divorce and his involvement in the state’s recent process of updating child support policy.
Decker made a name for himself when he and several other men advocating fathers’ rights became fixtures at meetings of the Arizona Supreme Court’s Child Support Guidelines Review Committee, a court-appointed panel that is charged with reviewing the state’s child support policies every four years.
This year, the committee supported implementing Child Outcomes Based Support, or COBS, which seeks to equalize the living standard a child would experience in the homes of both parents. It was an idea opposed by Decker and other fathers’ rights advocates, and they spent hours meeting weekly with the chairman of the committee, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Cohen.
Decker said he has spent thousands of hours researching child support issues and he has several ideas for future legislation.
He also has been a frequent speaker at legislative committee hearings.
“I and a small group of people have been working for change and getting it,” Decker said. “We were 100 percent successful at passing and killing the bills that needed to be killed.”
Decker said they had a hand in 2010 in securing the passage of SB1314, which added a public policy statement pertaining to the best interests of a child and provided sanctions for filing petitions in bad faith.
Their success, he said, bred animosity from people who “don’t want the laws simplified and don’t want them child friendly.”
The court committee is separate from the Child Support Committee. Decker was appointed in March to fill a seat for “one person who is knowledgeable in child support issues and is a noncustodial parent.”
A month before his appointment, Decker was discharged early from a three-year sentence of probation and his felony convictions were designated misdemeanors, a common practice used to give offenders incentive to successfully complete probation.
According to court records, Decker showed up at his children’s Mesa school Feb. 21, 2007, wanting to take them to the doctor for vaccinations.
Court records say that when school staff resisted, he stormed into his son’s second-grade classroom and grabbed him by the arm and took him out of class. Then the two went to Decker’s sixth-grade daughter’s classroom.
Decker punched the teacher when he tried to bar the father from the classroom.
“I didn’t punch the teacher,” Decker said in a May 23 interview. “I defended myself.”
Mesa police arrested him later at the doctor’s office.
Decker maintains he didn’t do anything wrong, but says he pled guilty after being pressured to do so by his defense attorney.
Decker’s past also includes a 1982 conviction for aggravated assault for firing shots at the passing car of his newspaper deliveryman as he threw the Wall Street Journal on his driveway.
Decker said that incident was precipitated by business rivals throwing fire bombs at his business and house.
And there was a Dec. 25, 2003, incident where his ex-wife reported to Scottsdale police that he opened the door to his home holding a handgun, but not pointing it at her.
“That was a lie and the police found out it was a lie,” said Decker, adding that more than a dozen police officers showed up at his house, but he was never arrested or charged.
Decker said his criminal record has nothing to do with functioning on the committee.