Alternatives to jail for deadbeat dads Judges can choose work, job training

February 07, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

Judges in Anne Arundel County will have a new option this week when deciding whether to jail deadbeat dads who haven't paid child support -- putting the fathers to work or enrolling them in job training.

The Department of Social Services is starting a pilot program in ++ which fathers facing jail could be put to work at anything from planting bay grasses to cleaning up county highways, or be provided training for such jobs as auto mechanic.

Half the money participants earn will go toward support payments, and no one will be allowed to stay in the program for more than a year.

Judges will have to approve all participants, who will be interviewed by a social services administrator before being taken to court for support hearings.

pTC Ed Bloom, director of social services, said the $170,000 pilot program is the brainchild of the Welfare Reform Task Force, which the county set up in December.

"We're hoping to get the guy who through lack of education or lack of job training has just has not been able to make the payments," Mr. Bloom said. "Right now, he's not doing anybody any good in jail."

Mr. Bloom said 50 people will be enrolled in the program, know as Child Support Initiative. The program will be evaluated every three months and will be funded until the end of the year.

The initiative, financed by the county, comes about two months after Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams released 58 fathers from the county jail, where many had spent up to several months for failure to pay support.

The fathers were jailed illegally because they were not being sufficiently informed of their right to counsel, a requirement in a criminal contempt proceeding, Judge Williams ruled.

He also found that some judges were setting payment figures required for release that were too high and were not based on the father's ability to pay.

"It doesn't make any sense to put someone in jail for nonsupport if he's just going to sit there," the judge said. "There's still no money coming in."

The ruling sent a shiver through the collective spine of those charged with trying to collect delinquent child support from deadbeat dads. They say incarceration works -- and vow to to continue pursuing it.

"It's not only a useful tool, it's one of the best tools there is for enforcing child support," said William Schmidt, administrator of the county Circuit Court's Domestic Relations Division, which handles support cases. "We don't exactly have people beating down our door to make their payments."

He said that between Oct. 6 and Nov. 2 of last year, 166 fathers were jailed for failure to pay a total of $1.14 million in support.

In those cases, the judges demanded that they pay 20 percent, or roughly $231,000. By the end of November, half the fathers had coughed up the money, and partial payment had been made on another 36 cases, he said.

Jailing deadbeats will remain an option in Anne Arundel County and statewide, enforcement officials say.

"If people know that if they don't pay their support they could have a sheriff at their door, that's a pretty good incentive to making payment," said Margaret Sollenberger, chief of the state Department of Human Resources' support enforcement division.

Mr. Schmidt said that the new program may help but that it will be a drop in the bucket. While the program has a capacity for 50 fathers, his office brings into court 4,000 cases of contempt each year.

The judges, who were briefed last week about the program, are optimistic. They said they are willing to assign defendants to it, and will cross their fingers and hope that it helps extract payments.

"It sounds like they're on the right track, and I intend to take full advantage of it," said Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr.

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