New options for deadbeat parents

March 10, 1993

There's no question that most deadbeat parents with a job or the means to get one deserve to go to jail. Sad as it is, the threat of incarceration is often the only way to make them pay child support.

But what about deadbeat dads (and mothers) who would rather not be deadbeats? What about those who would pay, but can't because they have neither the education nor the skills to find steady work? Jailing them for a short time may send a message, but in practice it helps no one.

The children don't get the support they need. The parents are no closer to finding employment so they can meet their obligation and stay out of jail. And the taxpayer pays, about $50 for each day a parent sits in jail.

Amid the publicity accompanying the release of 61 deadbeat dads in Anne Arundel County two months ago, one problem that stood out is the lack of resources to help parents who want to pay their debt.

Anne Arundel County has only one counselor to serve all its jailed fathers, which can be as many as 80 at any one time. On top of that, those inclined to conduct a job search on their own are restricted by a policy that allows inmates to make only collect calls.

The county saw this deficiency and has announced a one-year, $170,000 pilot program that, while extremely limited in scope, acknowledges that jail is not a productive solution for some parents.

The "Child Support Initiative" allows judges to send certain parents to work or job training for up to a year instead of to jail. Half of what they make goes toward support payments.

To make sure they get a firm foothold in their new job, parents can continue to receive counseling and support services for six months. Parents will be able to use the Community College Learning Centers and other community services. This way, those who want to do the right thing get a fair chance.

Only 50 Anne Arundel parents will be eligible, compared to 4,000 non-support cases handled annually by the county. Though money for new programs is slim, this is the kind of initiative that -- if the pilot program works -- makes practical sense to expand.

Incarceration will always be a necessary threat for some deadbeats, but the more parents we keep out of jail and in a steady job, the more money we'll save, and the better off many children will be.

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