Parents who are behind in child support payments are under more pressure to pay with the threat of the state's latest stick -- suspension of their driver's licenses.
The 3-month-old driver's license suspension program is credited with increasing payments by 9 percent -- an estimated $6.71 million above what was expected in collections from February through last month, according to figures released Friday by the state Child Support Enforcement Administration.
The increase in collections includes payments from more than 30,500 so-called "deadbeat parents." About 220,000 people are under court order to pay child support in Maryland; half of them were not making payments and owed an average of $3,000 each.
Similar driver's or professional license suspension programs have been established in 43 other states as part of a nationwide effort to collect child support. State and federal officials believe the payments are critical to reducing welfare rolls.
Such programs resulted in a $4 billion increase in child support collections nationwide from 1992 to last year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"With the threat of losing your license, you're going to do something to get it straight," said Maurice Spencer, 37, as he sat in a Baltimore child support office last week getting the paperwork he needed to have the three-month suspension on his license lifted.
"It's a forceful-type program," said Spencer, who had fallen eight months behind in his $70-a-week payment -- a problem he blamed on being out of work after surgery. "It's either do or die."
Those who receive child support payments say such initiatives as the driver's license suspension program have long been needed to compel deadbeat parents to meet their obligations.
"I feel if you can take care of a car, you can help take care of the child," said Sharon Kennedy, 24, of Baltimore.
She said she hasn't seen her $25-a-week payment for her 7-year-old daughter in months. "Guys like to drive cars; that's like a big issue to them. You feed a car gas. You take care of that car, then take care of your children."
The law allowing the child support administration to suspend licenses went into effect in October, after the General Assembly passed legislation during its 1996 session. The administration officially kicked off the program Feb. 3.
Thousands still evade
While the threat of losing driving privileges has caused some people to pay child support, thousands of others still are not complying.
As of April 30, an estimated 9,167 licenses were suspended throughout Maryland for failure to pay child support, according to Keith Snipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.
Officials at the child support administration said that while it is unfortunate that some people have had their licenses suspended, they believe the program is accomplishing its intended goal.
"It's meant to be another inconvenience in their lives," said Clifford Layman, director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration. "It's not about suspending licenses. It's about getting people to fulfill their obligations to their children."
Layman said most of the people who receive suspension notices can avoid having their license taken.
Series of notices
The agency first issues notices to people, saying their licenses -- may be suspended if they do not resolve the debt. They have 20 days to respond before the Motor Vehicle Administration issues another letter about the suspension.
With the MVA letter come 20 more days to appeal or comply.
Those who have their regular licenses suspended can apply for a permit that allows them to travel to and from work. But if they are caught driving anywhere else, they could be charged with driving on a suspended license.
MVA spokeswoman Marilyn Corbett said 161 of the people whose driver's licenses were suspended had sought work-restricted licenses by the beginning of May, while a smaller number had their suspensions withdrawn because they came into compliance or got a court waiver, she said.
Layman said he believes that some people don't care about losing their licenses because they just don't want to pay their child support. On the other hand, he said, the $6.71 million collected as a result of the driver's license suspension program shows that many people will do what they have to do to protect what's important to them.
"Somehow the people who weren't paying found the money," Layman said. "Unfortunately, that's a sad commentary on our society. Our leisure time is more important than our children. I don't have sympathy for them."
Wants to contribute
Spencer, a plumber who services apartment complexes throughout the city, said he is among those who want to take care of his children. After surgery last year, he couldn't go to work and pay his child support for his two daughters, he said.
He said he didn't know that he could have gotten a license that would have allowed him to go to work. He feared that without his license, he would have been in even more trouble.
Link to jobs
"Without a license, I don't have a job," Spencer said. "I do a lot of driving to and from work. I'm on call 24 hours. I have to leave myself available for emergency calls."
At the child support office last week, Spencer was given the paperwork for a work-restricted license and promised to make ++ payments on his debt, with the first installment of $500 within 30 days.
"Thank God," he said about his case being resolved. "I really need my license."
Pub Date: 5/11/97