One County Agency Teaches A Lesson

Comment

November 29, 1992|By BRIAN SULLAM

All those people who believe that government is incapable of doing anything right ought to ponder the admirable record of Carroll County's Bureau of Child Support.

This is a government agency that last year was able to collect and distribute $3.5 million in child support payments that might not otherwise have been paid.

"Child support used to be a big joke," said Jamie Wehler, the support enforcement supervisor. "But nobody considers it a joke anymore."

In fact, many private collection companies are now offering their services to spouses hoping to track down delinquent dads. One agency has even renamed itself "Find Dad."

As a society, we have been slow to recognize that divorce has not only devastating psychological impact on children, but public pecuniary costs.

Mothers who don't receive child support to which they are entitled often end up applying for public assistance and other welfare programs. As these rolls have expanded, the state and federal governments have beefed up programs to go after the fathers - and some mothers -who have skipped out on their obligations. Going after delinquent parents offers states an easy way to pare burgeoning welfare rolls.

Maryland has been beefing up its child support program since the mid-1980s, and it has paid off. Collections are up, and parents are on notice that if they fall behind in their payments, the state government will go after them.

Carroll County's program is one of the better ones in the state. Of the cases that are referred to the county's child support bureau, the bureau is able to make collections in 52 per-cent. The state-wide average is be-tween 42 and 45 percent. Nation-wide, the average is 25 percent. For every dollar spent on running the Carroll County bureau, it was able to collect $6.40.

The success of the child support effort demonstrates that government officials and workers can be as productive as private industry. It is just a matter of getting the right people to coordinate, supervise and motivate.

It all starts in the Carroll County Department of Social Services. Ms. Wehler has assembled a group of enforcement agents who have traced delinquent fathers to the four corners of the United States.

She likes to tell how one dad who skipped out on his child support payments was traced to the federal witness protection program. The U.S. Marshals were not happy at all that the enforcement agents were able to locate him. But since then, his child support payment has arrived on time each month.

"We have basically sent out the message that you can run, but you can't hide," said Ms. Wehler.

W. Alex Jones, the director of Carroll County's Department of Social Services, said it takes more than just good enforcement agents.

"All the agencies involved in child support - the state's attorney, the sheriffs office and the courts - work together very closely," he said.

During the last presidential campaign, Ross Perot promised to break the governmental gridlock by getting everyone to work together.

In Carroll County, the different agencies have all contributed to make the child support efforts work.

The state's attorney has designated one lawyer to handle these cases. The deputy sheriff assigned to serve fathers with court summons has flexible hours. He works at night and serves the fathers at their homes or, if necessary, at their favorite watering holes. This means that in most cases that go to court the fathers are served with papers. In many counties, only a small minority of fathers is served.

The county court has also cooperated by setting aside a few days each month to handle these cases. Nevertheless, there is a five-month back-log of child support cases.

For women, or men, who want help locating their spouses and collectlng child support, the service is a bargain. They pay a one-time fee of $20 that takes care of everything - locating the father, getting him into court and collecting the child support.

By contrast, private collection agencies take between 25 percent and 30 percent, charging for all of their court costs and legal fees.

Some people argue that 75 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing, which is true. But why pay 25 percent for service when you don't have to?, If all government agencies could run as efficiently and deliver services as well as the child support bureau. the public would hold government in a lot higher esteem and we would all be better served.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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