Arundel bails out delinquent dads and their children

January 17, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

When Paul Jenkins returned to Maryland, all he had was his duffel bag, some fishing gear and the bridge over his head.

Homelessness isn't too tough for a Southern boy in summer. But it wasn't much of a life for the father he wanted to be to Amanda Nicole, his reason for returning from North Carolina.

"I was 27 years old and didn't have anything to show for it except my daughter," said Jenkins. "I wanted to see her and do what I'm supposed to."

By that he meant pay child support. But while he was in North Carolina nursing his stroke-impaired father until his death, he'd run up a $4,011 child-support debt to his ex-girlfriend, and she was in no mood for a family reunion. Instead, there was a warrant for his arrest.

When Jenkins reported to Anne Arundel County court for the hearing, he was looking at 90 days in jail.

"By that time, I had a steady job and a place to live and I told the judge he could have the $45 in my pocket. But that state's attorney wanted me in jail. I was scared. And I was angry. I couldn't believe I'd come this far only to get turned around."

From the corner of the courtroom, Bob Reese watched. During a recess, he met with Jenkins and asked him what he wanted out of life.

"I told him I wanted to be with my daughter. That before I never did anything and now it was time I did."

"You're in the program," the judge decreed, and suspended his sentence. Reese beamed.

Reese was a counselor for the Child Support Initiative Program of Anne Arundel County. It rescues motivated dads such as Jenkins, and for much less than it would cost to keep them in jail. Instead of punishing undereducated, unskilled, unemployed dads, the program gets them back on their feet with education, job search and a little money.

If a deadbeat dad is working and still refuses to pay, a jail sentence will often motivate him. But for those who lead marginal lives, the jail has a revolving door. They are no more capable of meeting their obligations than they were when they were sentenced.

"These guys are just one rung off the bottom of the barrel," said Brent Johnson, program administrator. "This program suggests that if you intercede and have something to offer -- job training, education, drug treatment -- and a stipend that takes the pressure off, 35 to 40 percent will turn their lives around."

That's what happened for Paul Jenkins, one of the success stories among the 145 participants in its first 17 months.

He is trying to finish high school and is a guard for Wells Fargo. He owes less than $1,000 in back child support and is making his weekly $45 payments.

He still has not seen Amanda Nicole, however. The painful lesson of this program is there is no legal relationship between child support and visitation.

"If it weren't for Bob Reese, I'd probably be in jail now," said Jenkins. "I've got my own place. I have a car. I've kept it together this long."

Not all the stories in Brent Johnson's files have happy endings. Almost 60 percent of the participants have serious substance-abuse problems. The first step is to get them into rehabilitation, but very often they drop out of the program.

Others refuse to show up for the meetings and training sessions. They, too, are dropped, and a bench warrant waits.

"All they have to do is show up and they get money to pay their child support, and they still don't do it," said Johnson. "What does that say about them?"

Most of the stipend -- $100 a week for 26 weeks -- goes toward back child-support payments. The men are given just a few dollars for themselves, unless more is needed to pay for schooling or drug rehab. And that may be one criticism of the program. The government is paying the child support for these guys.

"The original intent of the stipend is to assist the destitute while they look for work," said Johnson. "But if we paid them and they paid nothing to child support, it would be unacceptable. The truth is, they need some money to survive."

The cost of jailing these men could easily be more than they owe, and certainly more than $100 a week, most of which goes to a child. And 60 percent of those who have completed the program are making regular child-support payments.

Paul Jenkins' goal now is to soften the heart of Amanda's mother toward him so he can see his 6-year-old daughter.

"I'm doing what my mother raised me to do," he said.

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