Beating Up on Deadbeats

January 28, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

Faithful readers of The Evening Sun opinion page recently were treated to a fascinating exchange on the subject of child support -- an issue that Maryland lawmakers also will be paying a great deal of attention to in coming weeks.

On January 11 Robin Miller, a Baltimore cab driver who over the years has written many opinion pieces for the paper, penned an essay entitled ''The pain of a deadbeat dad,'' in which he confessed to owing thousands of dollars in child-support payments to his ex-wife.

Mr. Miller said the child-support laws of Maryland put men like himself in an impossible postion because prosecutors and judges routinely order fathers to pay more than they can reasonably afford, or face the possibility of going to jail.

''Telling a man who earns under $200 a week that he has nine weeks to raise $2,500, and ordering him to pay another $120 a week at the same time, is asking him to do the impossible,'' Mr. Miller wrote, ''especially if he may be forced to pay a lawyer $100 an hour -- or more -- to keep himself out of jail for the crime of not having enough money in the first place.''

Mr. Miller admitted feeling shamed by his situation. ''I feel like a loser my children should not associate with,'' he wrote.

Not all readers were persuaded by Mr. Miller's argument, however. ''The solution to Mr. Miller's financial problems is fundamental to our system of free-market economics,'' wrote one. "He can earn more or work more.''

Another reader pointed to the problems single mothers face ''trying to make ends meet financially while at the same time explaining to the children why their other parent has become invisible.'' Her advice: ''See the pain of the children. It won't cost a dime.''

Finally, on January 26, Mr. Miller's ex-wife, Nola N. Krosch, offered her own rebuttal. She said it was unfair to allow fathers to evade responsibility for their children.

''The bottom line is that Robin Miller, and the many other deadbeat dads, have had ample opportunity to comply with state and federal laws in the matter of child support,'' Ms. Krosch wrote. ''Removing criminal penalties for nonpayment of child support, as Robin Miller advocates, would simply send the message that deadbeat dads can continue to victimize their children with impunity.''

Maryland lawmakers contemplating a series of proposals designed to revamp the state's child-support statutes ought to find a lot to ponder here. Of the various initiatives being discussed in Annapolis this session, at least two would address directly the issues raised by Mr. Miller and Ms. Krosch.

One bill currently being drafted would require the Motor Vehicle Administration to restrict, suspend or even revoke the licenses of non-custodial parents who don't pay up on time. The restrictions would remain until the non-paying parent satisfied the obligation or demonstrated a good-faith effort by making regular payments for at least six months.

Advocates of the measure say it is needed to enforce support orders against parents who aren't subject to other enforcement mechanisms, such as wage withholding and tax interception. It particular, it would apply to parents who are self-employed or whose wages are irregular.

A related measure would allow the state to revoke the professional licenses of parents who don't keep up their payments. For example, a physician who fell six months behind would have his name reported to the state medical board, which could then suspend his license to practice.

Efforts to link drivers' licenses to child-support payments have failed in the past. Opponents argue that the two have nothing to do with one another and that there is no compelling reason to tie them together now.

But a new state report by the Child Support Enforcement Administration says current enforcement efforts are not working.

''The child support program in Maryland requires innovative changes in order to overcome inadequate funding and a burgeoning caseload,'' the report warns. It says delinquent parents owed more than half a billion dollars in back payments in 1993.

The Glendening administration, which sees child-support as vital its welfare-reform package, plans to go after delinquent parents aggressively as a first step toward erasing the image of the ''deadbeat dad.'' It wants to do so by emphasizing that parents should pay up not because the courts force them, but because it's the right thing to do.

That's something on which both Mr. Miller and Ms. Krosch could probably agree.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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