Child Support Enforcement in Baltimore: 'A Nightmare'

December 12, 1993|By DICK MENDEL

Like more than one hundred thousand Baltimore parents, Dawn Simmons is waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Dawn Simmons is waiting for her due, for simple justice. She's waiting for a much-needed financial cushion, a hand-hold to secure herself and her baby out of reach from the waiting jaws of poverty and welfare dependence.

Dawn Simmons is waiting for child support.

Nine hundred and twenty days have passed since she first crossed the threshold at the Eutaw Street headquarters of the Baltimore City Office of Child Support Enforcement. Ms. Simmons was just three months pregnant on that first visit -- anxious to make sure she'd have help with the bills once her baby arrived.

Wishful thinking.

Despite applying six months early, despite telling authorities the name of her baby's father, plus his Social Security number and his employer, Ms. Simmons is still waiting for her first child support check. Her boy Aaron will celebrate his second birthday Dec. 21.

Ms. Simmons' story is anything but unusual. She is one of 134,532 Baltimore parents on the active case load last year of the city's beleaguered child support office. Of these, only 20,663 (15 percent) received even a single payment. The rest, like Ms. Simmons, went without.

Child support enforcement is "a nightmare," says Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman. "A mud hole" admits Louis Curry, the city's support enforcement director. "Outrageous" is the preferred term of Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, Judge Friedman's colleague on the Circuit Court bench.

Baltimore's child support enforcement system remains anemic even after a wave of federal and state child support reforms in the past decade, even after the state assumed control of the city enforcement program in 1990 and appointed a new director.

For working mothers like Ms. Simmons, and for tens of thousands of city welfare mothers unable to achieve self-sufficiency on their own, nonsupport remains the rule. Waiting is still the order of the day.

Nonsupport isn't unique to Baltimore, of course. With more than a million children born out of wedlock each year and a divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, child support has become vital to millions of children across America.

Of course, some non-custodial parents cannot pay; they are unemployed or in jail. No one is sure what percentage of non-paying parents can't pay and what percentage just won't pay. But experts and advocates agree that an efficient collection system can vastly improve the number of dollars paid out in child support.

"Deadbeat dads" achieved national notoriety during the 1992 presidential campaign -- and for good reason. According to the Census Bureau, only half of all parents potentially eligible for child support nationwide had orders entitling them to support in 1989. And only half of these received the full amount due. This lack of support is a major reason why a whopping 56 percent of children in female-headed families nationwide live below the poverty line.

But experts say Baltimore's malady is among the worst they've seen. The Baltimore child support office has primary responsibility for collecting support on behalf of 75,130 welfare parents plus another 59,402 non-welfare parents not wealthy enough to afford a private attorney.

According to a study completed by the Pacific Consulting Group in 1990, the 326-person agency establishes a support order for ++ only 42 percent of the parents who walk through its doors seeking one. And the study found that for parents lucky enough to get orders, the agency collects just 32 percent of the dollars owed.

Combining these two statistics, the study estimated that the city office brings in just 13 cents of every child support dollar that ought to be paid -- a figure the study called "far below the performance levels achieved in the rest of the nation" and "even below those of most other large cities."

And the situation has only deteriorated since 1990. Despite an increased caseload, Baltimore's office established fewer paternities and fewer support orders in the fiscal year ended June 30 than it did three years before. The city's support collections increased slightly over this period, but at a slower rate than any of Maryland's other 23 jurisdictions.

Overall, the city office collected just $49 million of the $346 million owed its clients in 1992. That was bad news for taxpayers, who footed a massive welfare bill while the city brought in just $21 million of the $199 million owed to welfare recipients.

Better enforcement would have enabled many one-parent families to escape welfare, and -- since the state retains all but the first $50 collected each month for families that remain dependent -- it could have saved taxpayers millions. Weak enforcement was terrible news too for working parents and their children. Those who relied on the city enforcement office received just $28 million of the $147 million due them.

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