Parents due child support money are buying their own ... PAYBACKS

January 02, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Effie Cox, a petite, soft-spoken mother of a 3-year-old, talks in such a down-home, honeycombed Eastern Shore accent, those who first hear her on the other end of a telephone can't quite believe she's a professional debt collector -- and that she's somehow tracked them down.

"I don't care what your excuses are for not paying your child support," she says calmly and evenly to the deadbeat dad on the other end of the line -- a man she has methodically pursued via the computer terminal in the tastefully furnished den of her home just outside Crisfield. "You're healthy, you're able to work. If you're not working then you should be out there picking up aluminum cans alongside the highway," she says. "If that's what you've got to do to make some money and get it to your child, you should be doing it. Because you're a parent. You have that responsibility."

Articulated in Ms. Cox's sweet voice of reason, it makes for a convincing argument. But nationally, some 15 million absent parents are not providing court-ordered support for their children, representing an estimated $5 billion owed to custodial parents -- about half of whom, left to fend for themselves, end up on welfare rolls.

And with overworked state agencies unable to deal efficiently with the problem, private agencies like Ms. Cox's Child Support Services in Crisfield -- dedicated to collecting only one kind of debt -- are popping up all across the country.

"We are simply offering an alternative other than state agencies or private attorneys who require a large retainer," says Charles Drake, president and founder of the American Child Support Collection Association in San Antonio, Tex., which numbers about 45 agencies in 32 states. "We are the only ones who can make a guarantee: If we don't collect, we don't get paid."

Typically, says Mr. Drake, private agencies charge about 25 percent of any fees recovered. And typically, the smaller agencies have better luck tracking down an absent parent.

"We are not inundated with cases," he says. "And we don't have to approach a state legislature with a request for a budget increase."

But it isn't just individual parents who are turning to private firms for help. In places like Tennessee, Georgia, Wyoming and Nebraska, social service offices themselves are contracting with private collection agencies to help clear thousands of old child support cases.

In Maryland, the state Department of Human Resources says only about 35 percent of all dollars due to custodial parents is collected annually. "That leaves too many people who do not get all the child support they're supposed to," admits Brian Shea, an administrator in the department's Child Support Enforcement Administration.

"We had a quarter-million clients last year. More than half are welfare clients, and the collection potential for us is often very low, but the volume is ever increasing. And as the economy suffers, our clientele base grows and grows. We're somewhat overwhelmed.

"They are usually cases with 2-inch-thick files," says Mr. Shea. "The clients are very unhappy with the service they've gotten from the state. That's not to say we haven't done the very best with the resources we have, but they're just not satisfied. The wife is thinking her ex-husband owes $10,000, and she'd rather give up a quarter on every one of those dollars than not collect it at all."

Such was the case with Penny Bozman of Salisbury, who went 15 months hoping the local social services office would track down her ex-husband and get him to pay the child support he owed for their two children. Within two weeks of essentially firing the state and going to Effie Cox, Ms. Bozman's ex-husband had been traced to Pennsylvania and she had received her first check.

"Social Services had so much red tape," says Ms. Bozman. "But Effie Cox got on it and stayed on it until she got something done. My ex-husband would lie to social services, and they would believe him, but Effie didn't take his lies. She called to verify everything he told her and then called him back and told him he was lying. If I hadn't found her I'd probably still be fighting the system."

Ms. Cox smiles wryly. "A lot of the deadbeats think I'm softhearted," she says. "They think they can just hang up on me and that's the end of it. Well, I am softhearted, but I'm softhearted toward the child. I've got that maternal instinct. I don't want to hear excuses about not paying child support."

Fact of life

When someone hangs up, she says, "I just call them right back and say, 'The next call I make is gonna be to a sheriff or to your employer. I'm a fact of life you're gonna have to live with. I'm not going away.' "

An edge comes into her voice.

"They don't usually hang up a second time," she says. "You can't get away from child support. It doesn't matter what you do, you can't get away from it."

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