What's Dearest to a Father's Heart?

July 29, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

AUGUSTA, MAINE — In the entry to the Department of Human Services there is a small, rather discreet sign that reads simply: ''Make Child Support Payments Here.'' It's a modest request but it might very well become a state motto.

Here in the Northeast corner of the country, the Pine Tree State has done what other states are threatening to do. It is enforcing the first law in the country that takes away licenses -- business licenses, professional licenses, and especially driver's licenses -- from parents who don't support their children.

And the hopeful fact -- or is it the depressing fact? -- is that it's working.

For years, the Children's Defense Fund has pointed out that fewer than 3 percent of people default on used-car payments while 49 percent default on child-support agreements. Now it seems that the most feared Repo Man is the one who can repossess a driver's license.

Today the deadbeat dad has become the poster boy of irresponsibility. Despite all the careful gender-neutral language of the law, we know that 97 percent of the ''non-compliant non-custodial parents'' are fathers. In 1992, they owed nearly $34 billion to their 23 million children.

Each one may have a story about why he can't or won't or shouldn't have to pay what the court has ordered. But Colburn Jackson, the burly, longtime head of support enforcement for Maine, says flatly that the primary reason men don't pay is: ''They've been able to get away with it.''

Mr. Jackson's own view is closer to a judicial malaprop he remembers with humor.

Not long ago, a Maine judge meant to rule that a father had proved his inability to pay. By mistake, the judge wrote that the father had ''demonstrated an ability to not pay child support.'' That, Mr. Jackson says, is closer to the truth.

Maine has tried something different. Last August, the state sent out notices of the new law to 17,400 parents who were more than 90 days late in their payments. Some of these parents hadn't paid ''since antiquity,'' some had hidden their assets, some had gone into business under other names. All were warned to pay up, to make a payment plan or risk losing a license.

The response was overwhelming. A man with a license to run a junkyard -- a father who hadn't paid child support in 10 years -- came in the day after he got the notice and said, ''Well, you got me now.'' A long-haul trucker came in and plunked down $19,000. Another man who said he had been ''procrastinating for years'' paid $4,000.

By June, they had collected $12.9 million from 10,000 people in a state of about one million.

And that was before the first license had been taken away. A few weeks ago, eight men who collectively owe $140,000 shared the dubious honor of being first to lose their licenses to drive.

What Jane Sheehan, the commissioner of human services, learned -- and she says this without a hint of irony in her voice -- is that ''you have to attack something near and dear to the heart of that individual.'' What others have learned is that sometimes the car or certainly a professional license was nearer and dearer than the kid.

In his Capitol office, Gov. John McKernan describes this law as another way of putting back together the Humpty-Dumpty of responsibility. It's a program popular with most men as well as women. ''Many fathers are struggling to pay for their own kids,'' he says, ''and paying taxes for the kids of fathers who aren't paying anything.''

Indeed, in the aftermath of Maine's success, a dozen states are considering similar laws that apply to AFDC and non-AFDC families alike. The idea has appeared as part of the Clinton welfare-reform proposal. There are plans to make state laws reciprocal, so that parents with children in one state and licenses in another would be as vulnerable for child-support violations as they are for driving violations.

But if what's happened here is a success story, it's not an entirely happy tale. For as long as I can remember, Americans have ruefully noted that you need a license to drive a car but not to raise a child. Now in this upside-down world, we have finally drawn a connection between parenting and licensing.

What an odd bumper sticker for our era: Support your kids, or get out of the driver's seat.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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