Linda Gebhart was at wit's end after spending six years trying unsuccessfully to collect the more than $60,000 she contends her ex-husband owed in unpaid alimony payments.
Her experience inspired the Bel Air resident to form a group she dubbed WIT'S END -- an acronym for We Intend to Stop Enduring Deadbeats.
The newly formed group plans to lobby for legal changes that would make it easier for women to collect unpaid spouse and child-support payments.
"I've been told I'm irrational, crazy, too angry, but I started out polite and it didn't work, so now our group is going to state delegates, senators and congresswomen to get these laws changed," said Gebhart.
"Our No. 1 priority is to get the money, and get the money without constant hassles with an agency or the courts. What they need is a more timely and efficient enforcement apparatus."
For example, Gebhart would like to change the law regarding wage garnishments to ensure that employers stop taking money for support payments from paychecks only after receiving an in-state court order ending the garnishment.
She also would like to gain improvement in collecting alimony. While the mechanism for collecting child support, though faulty, is detailed in state law, no such collection system is spelled out for unpaid alimony, she says.
Gebhart said she and the eight other women in the group believe the system has failed them.
"All of us think if this wasn't a woman's issue we wouldn't have this problem," said Gebhart. "The issue is not my lifestyle, whether I live alone, whether I work or whether I have children. The issue is that I have a court order saying he should pay."
Some administrators in the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the county's Department of Social Services agree with Gebhart's assessment.
Larry Berardelli, director of Harford's DSS, said he supports the group's effort.
"If it takes a group like that to push legislators to sew up the loopholes, then I say 'Go do it,' " said Berardelli. "There are things that can be done in terms of improving access to follow guys and catch guys and ensure that employers take the money out of their wages."
In January 1991, the Harford County Sheriff's Office created a special three-man team to devote eight hours a day locating parents who have failed to pay child support. That enforcement has helped somewhat, local officials say.
The department had been using "a shotgun approach," and "nobody had any responsibility," recalled Deputy Jim Way, assigned to the unit.
FTC "We average five arrests a week. We try to find out where the men work because we know a guy won't give us serious trouble if his boss is watching," said Way. "But a lot of guys don't want to pay so they do work under the table, or move from job to job so you can't get a wage attachment or serve subpoenas."
Way said the average weekly child-support payment is $25 to $50.
But Way said collecting back alimony payments is difficult for many women because the system is not set up to address the problem of those that skip payments.
Part of the problem, Berardelli said, is that "Technically, we're not in the business of spousal support. To do that you have to get your own lawyer."
But Gebhart said she found in her experience that even a lawyer can't do it all.
Gebhart's problems began in 1985 when her husband moved to Kansas, established residency and divorced her.
A Kansas court ordered him to make monthly payments of $1,100 to Gebhart for three years. But he refused to make most payments, and now the amount he owes in arrears including interest, totals about $60,000.
Gebhart said she got a runaround from the Harford State's Attorney's office and the state Bureau of Child Support Enforcement when she sought help.
At first she was told those agencies couldn't help in cases of spouse support, or in cases where the payment order was granted by an out-of-state court.
Once she found out that Maryland law says that out-of-state court orders must be honored, Gebhart redoubled her efforts to collect the money she claims is owed, but so far has collected only about $1,400.
It's not any easier to collect even when children are involved, say county officials and women in WIT'S END.
Brenda Loiero, a 34-year-old mother of four, said she has had to be vigilant about child-support payments to cover expenses for her three sons -- $141 a week.
"I feel the court should hear my cries first. I'm tired of fighting in court to get what's fair for my boys," said Loiero. "I keep telling the boys 'Mommy will take care of it.' But sometimes Mommy doesn't know what she's going to do."
Gebhart said Loiero's experience is not uncommon.
"In another case the ex-husband was practically living across the street, and the woman told the agency so. But the bureau [of child support enforcement] couldn't find him," said Gebhart.
"The agencies don't have time to enforce the laws, but they do have time to go to court every month when he doesn't pay."