For four years, money Allan J. Collins paid to support his two daughters was "lost" in the bureaucracy of the Maryland child support agency.
State workers claimed he never paid the $1,400 and threatened to report him to credit agencies. At one point, he feared he would be arrested. Collins, his former wife and his mother sought help from a list of child support employees over the years, but to no avail.
"It did hurt the kids," said his former wife, Connie Collins, 34, a cook from rural Garrett County. "At the time, they didn't understand why no check would come."
Only when The Sun inquired about the case recently did the Child Support Enforcement Administration suddenly find the money and send it to the teen-agers' mother -- four years after Collins had paid it.
The Collinses say their story illustrates fundamental problems within the agency, which has been besieged by complaints for years. Those problems could spell trouble for some innocent parents this fall when the state begins suspending the drivers' licenses of people who are behind on child support, they say.
"If they done this to us, then how many other people have they done this to?" asked Mr. Collins' mother, Ruby Collins, a 59-year-old factory worker who made it her mission to track down the money owed her grandchildren.
"It's been one huge nightmare," said her 36-year-old son, a unit manager responsible for 250 inmates at an Oklahoma women's prison.
Clifford P. Layman, the new executive director of Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Administration, said, "I hope this is an isolated incident. It's embarrassing. We have no excuse for something like this."
He said he has launched an investigation to determine what went wrong and why. "We will be taking action in the very near future to make sure a case like this doesn't happen again."
According to the Collinses, their problem with the state began in the early 1990s, when Connie Collins went on welfare for a couple of years.
She said she wasn't earning enough in the economically troubled Western Maryland county to support the family. "Most jobs around here are minimum-wage, and the price of living is not minimum wage," said Connie Collins, who married when she was 16.
To reimburse Maryland for those payments, the state made her turn over collection of the $250 a month she got from her former husband for their daughters, now ages 17 and 15.
Allan Collins was living in Oklahoma and sending his child support to that state's agency, which acted as a middleman. Oklahoma put an incorrect code number on his monthly payments from December 1991 to June 1992. As a result, the money landed in the Prince George's County child support office instead of the one in Garrett, Layman said.
There, the checks seemingly disappeared. Child support workers in Garrett told Connie Collins that Maryland never got the money from Allan. "It caused a lot of problems because I contacted him and accused him of not paying his child support, when he did pay," she said.
Officials eventually put the right code on subsequent checks, which did make it to Garrett and Connie Collins.
She, her former husband and his mother began calling child support officials to locate the missing payments. Connie and Allan Collins eventually gave his mother the legal authority to pursue the matter for them.
Ruby Collins of Allegany County became single-minded in her quest. Widowed at 42 and forced to take a coal mining job to support herself, she was not easily discouraged by adversity. She pressed her efforts when a state worker said that her son would be arrested for nonpayment.
"Nobody does my kids wrong," she said. "The state of Maryland knew they had his money, and they kept harassing him anyway."
According to her records, Ruby Collins called or visited at least eight different state workers in Garrett, Prince George's and the Baltimore headquarters over the years. She also logged calls to several others in Oklahoma. "I have phone bills that are unbelieveable."
Her son said he did fall behind in his payments around 1990 and struggled to pay up in subsequent years. The missing $1,400 he paid in 1991 and 1992 complicated matters because he never knew exactly how much he truly owed, he said.
Meanwhile, his mother's efforts began to bear fruit. Last December, Howard W. Graham, a supervisor in the Garrett child support office, informed Connie Collins he had directed headquarters to continue a 1993 investigation into the missing checks.
In February, Graham sent another letter saying he could not give the Collinses "a specific time frame" for a resolution.
Last month, an exasperated Ruby Collins contacted a reporter, whose call to state officials led to the immediate mailing of a check to Connie Collins.
Layman said he cannot explain why his agency took so long to act this year. Maryland child support officials finally received copies of the missing checks from Oklahoma in late January, after initially having some trouble obtaining them, he said.
By March they had "found" the $1,400; it had been mistakenly credited as payments from another man named Collins in a Prince George's case, Layman said.
But still no one sent a check for the Collins children.
This final delay puzzled Layman. "I don't know what happened between March and May, and why it took two months for them to straighten the case out," he said.
Within days of his learning of the case, Layman's agency mailed Connie Collins a $438 check, with a promise of another $250 by June 21. The state kept the rest of the $1,400 as a reimbursement for her welfare payments.
Ruby Collins is uncertain if all the money her son paid has been properly accounted for. As recently as October, she said, the state claimed $2,078 was missing and owed.
For now, Allan Collins is relieved that his record has been cleared in Maryland.
And his teen-age daughters are thinking of ways to spend their belated windfall. "They've spent it a million ways," their mother said.
Pub Date: 6/03/96