WASHINGTON -- A federal panel, noting that only one-third of the $15 billion in child-support payments due each year are actually made, recommended tougher and more uniform laws yesterday to force delinquent parents to pay.
The U.S. Commission on Interstate Child Support urged Congress to adopt legislation creating a national computer network to keep data on people who owe child support, revising the W-4 tax form to require parents to list how much and where they are ordered to pay child support, and requiring states to honor out-of-state child support orders.
"This is really a historic opportunity for there to be a comprehensive look at interstate child support," said Margaret Campbell Haynes, chairwoman of the panel, which was created in accordance with a 1988 law aimed at helping single parents collect court-ordered payments for their children.
Ms. Haynes said that the recommendations formed a "visionary" report addressing a long-neglected problem.
About 11 million children are owed $15 billion in support annually, but about $10 billion of that goes uncollected, the commission reported. Most of that money is owed to families headed by single mothers.
Among the panel's proposed remedies:
* Expand an already planned network to include financial and employment information on parents who owe child support. The network currently on the drawing board would include only information on where parents live and how much money they owe.
* Expand federal W-4 forms to include child support information, and check the forms' accuracy against the information provided by the computer network.
* Require states to honor out-of-state court orders for child support. Some states require parents to seek a new court order if a delinquent parent moves out of state.
Geraldine Jensen, a commission member who is also head of the Toledo, Ohio-based Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, called the panel's recommendations a "positive step."
"We need to take down state barriers to make sure kids don't go to bed hungry," Ms. Jensen said. "So many of our children have this problem, but our system for helping them is broken."
Citing Census Bureau statistics showing that each child received about $15 a week more in child support in 1990 than in 1986, Ms. Jensen said the Family Support Act of 1988 has made significant progress in combating the problem. But some states have been lax in following the provisions of the law, she said.
The 1988 law mandated that every state have a statewide computer network of child support cases in place before 1995. Ms. Jensen said that only seven states have complied thus far, and some have indicated that they may not make the 1995 deadline.
"It's very worrisome," she said. "States can put a lottery machine in every convenience store in the state, but they can't do something to help out their children."
If a large number of states do not comply with the law, the commission's plan to expand the state systems into a national network could be in jeopardy.
Other obstacles also stand in the panel's way, such as the reluctance of parents who owe child support to surrender potentially expensive information on W-4 forms.
The commission's charter runs out in June 1992, and Ms. Haynes said the time between January and June will be spent organizing a legislative lobby for the panel's suggestions.