A payoff for county, dads, kids

October 20, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Last March, Rodney Russ, 28, was broke and behind bars.

A construction worker and a father of three, he had been out of work for several months, had run up an $8,000 child support debt and had been ordered to the county jail until he could come up with $250 as an installment toward paying off his debt.

He had no money and no job prospects.

His break came on March 14, when he agreed to participate in an experimental Anne Arundel County program and was released.

A week later, he was working as a dispatcher for the Reliable Cab Co. in Annapolis, his hometown. And, he has been paying his $70-a-week in court-ordered child support ever since.

Proponents of the county's 17-month-old Child Support Initiative Program yesterday touted its success at helping people like Mr. Russ stay out of jail and pay court-ordered child support.

"I highly recommend it. If it weren't for this program, I could still be in jail," Mr. Russ said yesterday.

The program uses $180,000 in county funds and $120,000 in state funds to give fathers a chance to meet support obligations with $100-a-week stipends and intensive social work.

So far, 145 participants have been enrolled and have paid back $317,219 in child support. Roughly $100,000 of that came from their own pockets and the balance came from the $100-a-week stipends, officials said.

In the program, three social workers are each assigned to help about 30 participants find jobs, work toward their high school equivalency diplomas and, if necessary, get counseling for drug or alcohol abuse.

Participants use the $100-a-week stipends, supplied for up to 26 weeks, to meet living expenses or pay part of their support, said Brent M. Johnson, the program administrator.

The program is restricted to those who are facing incarceration because a Circuit Court judge has found them in contempt for nonpayment, he said. Participation in the program must be approved by the Circuit Court judge, he added.

Yesterday, the program won the endorsement of Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr., who handles most nonsupport contempt hearings in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

"I like anything that gets money to the kids that need it," he said.

In a 12-page report released yesterday, Mr. Johnson said 73 percent of the program's participants are working or have acquired a skill to classify them as having successfully completed the program. The rest were "terminated" and sent back to jail, usually because of recurrent drug or alcohol problems, the report said.

The program was started Feb. 8, 1993, after a recommendation by the county's Welfare Reform Task Force. County Executive Robert R. Neall established the task force in 1992 in response to concerns about the increasing number of people being jailed for not paying child support.

"We had more people serving time for contempt [for failure to pay support] than for any other offense," said Robin Harding, deputy superintendent at the county jail.

Yesterday, Mr. Neall said he is pleased that the program has helped reduce the jail's population. However, the jail remains overcrowded. Yesterday's population was 667, well over the 600 the jail was designed to hold, said jail superintendent Richard Baker.

County officials said the program has reduced the jail population by about 60 inmates on any given day.

Mr. Neall said "the jury is still out" on the program's overall effectiveness. It will take two or three years of data to assess its success in turning around people who owe child-support, he said.

"Over the short term they can cherry pick the candidates and make sure they get the people who are going to make the program look as good possible," he said. "For this to work, it's got to work over the long haul."

But Anne Arundel County Public Defender Alan R. Friedman, who served on the task force, said the program also provides a benefit that cannot be measured in dollars. He said it is motivating participants to work, raising their self-esteem and making them less likely to commit petty crimes and tie up police and the courts.

"It's an investment, and it's a pretty good investment as far as I can see," he said.

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