Howard County's child support caseload is growing so fast, social services officials want to hire a court master who would preside exclusively over such cases.
Child support enforcement officials say the move would reduce the time it takes a child support case to reach court and allow the two masters who currently hear the cases to devote more time to domestic and juvenile trials.
"Right now it usually takes at least two or three months to get a court date," said Gerard Mueller, the county's child support enforcement supervisor. "Hiring another outside master to hear child support cases would lighten the load [of the two masters] and assist us in having these cases brought into court more quickly."
Court and social services officials are applying for federal money to hire a third master on contract. Mr. Mueller said he hopes to have the new master in place early next year.
Four county child support agents currently are handling nearly 4,000 cases, a 38 percent increase over the past two years. Each month agents open about 100 new cases.
Of the 2,559 cases now in the court system, half are delinquent at any given time, Mr. Mueller said.
"Ten years ago this agency had one agent; now we have four and that's still 1,000 cases per agent," said Alex Tickner, assistant director for administration and finance with the county's Department of Social Services.
"The recommended number of cases per agent is 500," Mr. Tickner said. "They're just overwhelmed."
Currently, two masters in chancery in the county's circuit courthouse hear juvenile, domestic and child support cases.
Each master sets aside one day a week to hear child support cases, an arrangement which allows both masters to hear about 120 to 160 cases a month.
In child support hearings the masters frequently are called upon to make decisions about a child's paternity and set the amount of support payments.
Masters also preside over contempt cases when the absent parent fails to make ordered payments or leaves town without notifying the court.
Both masters, Bernard A. Raum and W. Girard Schwessinger Jr., support the idea of having a master to hear child support cases because it would free them two days a week for other trials.
In addition, Mr. Schwessinger said he plans to retire at the end of the year.
County Circuit Court Administrator John F. Shatto, who is helping to prepare the application for an additional master, said the position will be part time, probably two or three days a week.
Mr. Shatto said the grant will pay for the master's salary, a secretary's salary, office equipment and office space, because no courthouse space is available for a third master.
"Hopefully this will give us an exclusive resource to fast-track these cases through the system," Mr. Shatto said.
Seven counties and Baltimore City have contracted with outside masters to hear child support cases.
Under the arrangement, a federal grant covers 66 percent of the master's salary and other expenses, and the individual counties pick up the rest of the cost.
The contracts in small to mid-sized counties range from $40,000 to $118,000, said Meg Sollenberger, director of the state's Child Support Enforcement Administration.
Metropolitan areas with very large child support caseloads, such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County, have used outside masters for several years.
Recently, smaller jurisdictions have begun such arrangements, Ms. Sollenberger said.
"Generally we've had improved collections [of child support payments] in areas where there's a master designated for child support cases," Ms. Sollenberger said.
In Carroll County, one of the first smaller counties to hire a master to hear child support cases, court and social service officials say the arrangement has been extremely effective.
Since the master started in 1988, Carroll's child support payment collections have gone from $1.9 million to $4.2 million for fiscal 1993, said James Brewer, a senior assistant state's attorney in Carroll County.
In 1988, Howard County collected $1.9 million in child support payments; in 1992, the latest year available, payments totaled $3.5 million.
Mr. Brewer said that adding another master has created a more streamlined system for child support cases in the courts. And since the master works exclusively on child support cases, he has developed valuable expertise in dealing with issues before him.
"Carroll County is a model in the sense of establishing cooperation between many different agencies within the county to work together as a team," Ms. Sollenberger said.
"And I know that Howard County is very interested in getting that same type of tight-fitting team going."