WESTMINSTER — The Department of Social Services knew Calvin Thornton's whereaboutsfor the past 12 years.
The department had him summoned to CarrollCircuit Court at least eight times from 1982 to 1990. Each time, he showed up.
Each time he was reminded of his obligation to pay child support.Each time, he failed to do so, officials said.
They even had him put in jail for 179 days in 1985, back when he owed less than $5,000 to the Westminster woman who was his wife and is the mother of his 12-year-old child.
Now he owes more than $17,000, according to courtrecords, and last week, a Baltimore police officer arrested Thornton, 39, near his southwest Baltimore home on a warrant issued a month ago by the Carroll State's Attorney's Office.
And even though Thornton has been in the Carroll Detention Center on $7,000 bail since late Wednesday night, Sheriff John H. Brown says the 12-year odyssey in search of support payments is baffling -- considering social servicesofficials knew where he lived and where he received his money.
"It looks like we're the ones who are clearing this situation up," the sheriff said. "What are they doing over there? Here's a guy they've known about for 12 years, and only now do they have him arrested?"
Brown said the system is broken if it allows fathers to accrue that much in back support payments. And, he said, part of the problem is a social service bureaucracy that moves too slowly.
"They're not police officers, they're not investigators," he said.
But they're notallowed to break the rules, either.
Jamie Wehler, the support enforcement supervisor at the department's Westminster office, says Thornton's non-payment was a civil matter until the misdemeanor non-support charge and subsequent arrest warrant were issued last month.
"We have been working this case since 1980, and, every time we asked him to be in court, he was there," Wehler said.
Wehler and her staffmonitor back child-support cases and, when they believe the civil court approach isn't working, they turn it over to the state's attorney's office.
Wehler concedes 12 years is a long time to let someone go without paying support. But she notes the jail time Thornton did serve.
"This wasn't a case where we just sat on it for 12 years," she said. "We have been working."
Thornton is the third man arrested this month and charged with non-payment of a large amount of back child support.
Two weeks ago, Michael Glover, who owed almost $12,000, turned himself in to a sheriff's deputy after his ex-wife trackedhim down in Pennsylvania. And, in February, George C. Smith III was extradited from Florida and charged with owing nearly $13,000 in backsupport to his Carroll ex-wife and children. An anonymous tip to theSheriff's Department led officers to Smith.
Non-support of a minor child carries a possible three-year prison term, but, most often, ajudge will impose work-release. That may change, though.
"For some of these guys who never paid a cent, I think it's time to take a harder line," said James F. Brewer, the assistant state's attorney who concentrates on child support matters.