Not all of the parents who are behind in their child support payments in Anne Arundel County are bums who don't care about their children. Some of them can't even care for themselves.
Many are high school dropouts who lack jobs, homes and even drivers' licenses. A sizable number are hooked on drugs or alcohol or both. Judges may threaten them with jail, but that rarely prompts these chronic scofflaws to pay what they owe.
If their children slip into poverty, it is the taxpayers who must support them. And if the offenders are jailed, we have to support them as well.
Now Anne Arundel County is trying a new approach to collect child support from some of the approximately 4,000 parents in the county who are in arrears on their payments. The Child Support Initiative Program is a last-ditch effort to reach those parents on the verge of going to jail.
The program uses state and county money to provide training, drug counseling and schooling to the parents and helps them find work. Participants in the program receive stipends of $100 a week for up to 26 weeks, which they can use to pay their child support.
This program is no panacea. Forty of the 145 parents enrolled in the first 17 months were terminated and sent to jail for failing to obey the rules.
Nor is the program cheap. It costs $300,000 a year for the counselors and stipends. And the results have been mixed. From February 1993 through June 1994, participants paid $317,219 in child support, but two-thirds of that came from the government stipends, rather than from the parents.
Yet we know through anecdotes that the program has worked for some parents. They quit drugs and found jobs. Supporting their children gave them new self-esteem. And their new productivity naturally helps their children.
It is too early to tell whether these parents will stay out of trouble and continue to pay their child support, but at least the county is going in the right direction.
Incarceration is not the way to squeeze money from parents chronically behind in their support. Putting them in jail does not help them find work or teach them responsibility; it only strains an already overcrowded jail.
Anne Arundel deserves credit for recognizing that delinquent child support is a complex problem that requires broad-based solutions.