Scoffing at child support

Rosalia M. Scalia

August 23, 1991|By Rosalia M. Scalia

FIFTEEN MONTHS have passed since my former husband found himself in the news as one of the "10 most wanted" child-support scofflaws in Maryland. But I have to report that the publicity and his short incarceration did not accomplish their purpose.

This is evident in his December and March payments: two checks for $3.81 each just before Christmas and two checks for $12 each just before Easter -- for three children. This is evident in his latest payment last week: $25. And this is also evident in the computer-generated letter, dated last March 20, from the Bureau of Support Enforcement of the state Department of Human Resources, informing meproudly of the amount the agency collected for my family between October 1989 and December 1990: $136.83. That's $16.83 more than my ex-husband's required monthly payment.

Never mind that my former husband neglected to send a cent between holidays. Never mind that he neglected to send anything marking our son's 11th birthday.

The Bureau of Support Enforcement misses the boat when it comes to bringing irresponsible child-support delinquents to task. Its highly publicized "10 most wanted" list is nothing more than a grandiose publicity stunt.

What happens after all the hoopla subsides? What happens when the eyes of the media look elsewhere? Nothing. Nothing happens. At least not in my case. Obviously, as evidenced by the number of single parents attempting to raise children without financial support, nothing happens in other cases as well.

Here it is 15 months later, and the Bureau of Support Enforcement has not taken any steps to ensure court orders are complied with. My former husband is allowed to think that his sporadic checks for meager amounts suffice for the $120 per month he is supposed to send regularly.

But as maddening as it is, this comes as no surprise, considering the number of years the bureau virtually ignored my case. In fact, the bureau would have continued to ignore me if it hadn't been for an angry letter I wrote it two Decembers ago upon receipt of the fourth annual, computer-generated letter informing me of the amount it had collected the previous year: a whopping $0.00.

The agency obviously was afraid I would take the issue to thpress, so it scurried to make amends by placing my ex-husband on its list. Then it forgot to do the legal paperwork to facilitate such action.

The bureau, in fact, gets media credit for doing work that is actually done by the Baltimore state's attorney's office. If it hadn't been for a warrant issued by that office two years before the Bureau of Support Enforcement's sudden interest in my ex-husband, the bureau would not have been able to haul him in at all. The diligent and meticulous assistant state's attorney assigned to the case performed a fast dance to make sure the paperwork was completed properly and my elusive ex-husband would not be able to slip through any legal loopholes.

Sadly, I am not alone. One can spend a single day in the Circuit Court for Baltimore city to observe the overwhelming numbers of financially abandoned parents trying to gain justice and monetary relief. According to the court clerk's office, 90 percent of the support judgments issued there prove difficult to collect because delinquent parents have unstable job histories, drug or alcohol problems, or they are simply determined not to pay child support.

Some of these scofflaws enroll in college full-time. Some join religious organizations that require vows of poverty. They can then claim "voluntary impoverishment."

What do single parents who have no job skills and no support system do to provide an adequate standard of living for their children? They go on welfare -- a system that perpetuates the never-ending cycle of poverty and despair. Or they take low-paying jobs that foster a population of latch-key kids because child care remains unaffordable. And this fosters a population suffering from what one might call "benign neglect."

The unspoken message of the ineffective Bureau of Support Enforcement is that children don't count enough. Nor do their overwhelmed, poverty-stricken, financially abandoned parents. The city and state seem to try harder to collect traffic fines than they do to collect child-support payments. There isn't a "Denver boot" for deadbeat parents, but I wish we could devise one.

Rosalia M. Scalia writes from Baltimore.

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