First the stick, now the carrot.
Maryland, which has been shaming child-support deadbeats all year by issuing highly publicized "most wanted" lists, took a softer approach yesterday. The state decreed a holiday amnesty during which delinquent parents may settle up without fear of going to jail.
From next Monday through Dec. 14, parents who are behind in their payments -- including those for whom arrest warrants have been issued -- may visit their local child-support office to work out a payment plan.
"Instead of going through a punitive process, if they come in, talk to us and make a deal, we can avoid their going to court and possibly to jail," said Meg Sollenberger, director of the state Department of Human Resources' Child Support Enforcement Administration.
"For two weeks, you don't have to be afraid to turn yourself in," she said.
The program, called "Support Your Children, They're Worth Every Dime," is designed so that any money collected "will be in the family's hands by Christmas," Ms. Sollenberger said.
If collections increase, the state would also stand to benefit, Ms. Sollenberger acknowledged, because families on welfare only receive the first $50 of child-support payments. The rest is retained by state and federal governments to help defray the cost of public assistance.
But Ms. Sollenberger said it was the holiday spirit -- and not the state's budget woes -- that inspired the new strategy for collecting child support.
Maryland has about 150,000 child-support cases, of which "at least half" are delinquent at any time, she said. Some $163 million in child support was collected in the state last year.
Maryland's "most wanted" program was started early this year to draw public attention to the child-support delinquency problem.
So far, 39 child-support delinquents have been named on most-wanted lists, and 24 have either come forward or been turned in.
While a few have gone to jail, Ms. Sollenberger said incarceration is rare in child-support cases.
"Many people get very close, but when the handcuffs go on, people suddenly discover they have the ability to pay," she said.
Where to call
For information about the amnesty program, contact your local child-support office or call (800) 492-5676.