A single mother toils, and the state lets her down Child support bills snag in Assembly

February 21, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

As a single mother, Dawn D. Rock has struggled to do right by her two sons -- with virtually no financial help from the father.

But the state machinery for enforcing child-support payments has let her down repeatedly. And, given the cool legislative reception to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposals for improving collections, not much relief is in sight for Ms. Rock and thousands like her.

A House of Delegates committee already has killed a bill that would have simplified the process of establishing paternity -- the first step toward collecting child support. And the governor's staff has withdrawn two controversial proposals: to suspend the driver's licenses of nonpaying parents, and to require grandparents to pay the debts incurred by children under 18.

Here's what remains of the Schaefer package: a few technical changes, most mandated by federal law; a community service requirement for parents who won't pay; and a bill allowing Maryland to report child-support debts to credit bureaus, a law already in effect in 47 states.

Even if the original package had passed, it would have improved collections only slightly, according to some policy experts. Despite similar legislative initiatives, few states can brag about their success in collecting child support.

"Virtually every state, including Maryland, does an inadequate job establishing paternity and collecting child support," says Clifford Johnson, director of family support services for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund.

Ms. Rock never put much stock in the Schaefer initiative.

"I don't see the governor's plan having any impact; I really don't," Ms. Rock says.

"It's all 'Catch me if you can.' They need to use the laws they already have."

Ms. Rock never married the father of her children. But, in the words of one policy expert, she "did everything right" in trying to help herself. She got off welfare within months of becoming a mother and found full-time work as as an administrative assistant at a federal agency. To give her sons a better life, she moved from Baltimore to a small rental house in Baltimore County.

This determined 23-year-old also pursued the father of her children relentlessly. She tracked him down several times, only to see him quit jobs, or change addresses. And she took him to court, where he was charged with contempt and threatened with prison time.

Nothing has seemed to work. The father pays just enough on his debt to stay out of jail, according to court records, but he doesn't provide the required monthly support of $280.

This case is one of 260,000 under state jurisdiction, half of which are delinquent on any given day. State workers collected a record amount of support money for Maryland children in fiscal ++ 1992, the year ending last June 30, but the total was less than one-third of the $700 million owed.

"We collect less than 40 percent of what is owed," Meg J. `D Sollenberger, director of the state's Child Support Enforcement Administration, told the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis. that good enough? No, it's not."

The problem begins early -- at birth. About 28 percent of Maryland's children are born out of wedlock; the percentage is close to 50 in Baltimore. In such cases, it's difficult to get fathers to pay unless they admit parenthood, or submit to blood tests that prove paternity.

The state's success rate for identifying fathers declined during the 1980s -- from 64 percent in 1980, the best rate in the country, to 44 percent in 1989.

Maryland has a lot to gain by pursuing nonpaying parents. If children are on welfare, the state keeps nearly half the money collected, to offset its costs for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.

In fiscal 1992, the state's share of collections totaled $50 million.

Revenue like that helps explain Governor Schaefer's interest in child support. As welfare rolls climbed throughout the nation during the past three years, many governors -- including Arkansas' Bill Clinton -- realized that making parents pay could reduce welfare costs. President Clinton is still interested in child support; the need for tougher enforcement was mentioned during his State of the Union speech. The federal government pays more than half of states' expenses for support collections, but the states are still feeling the financial pinch.

"Governors are reeling from the overall costs of caring for these children," says Kathy Patterson of the Washington-based American Public Welfare Association.

Most states already report delinquencies to credit bureaus, and several states suspend the driver's permits -- and professional licenses -- of delinquent dads.

These tactics have improved collections. But, says Ms. Patterson, "it's not hard to see a big increase when you weren't doing a very good job to begin with."

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