Support collections exceed $6 million But a third of parents don't make payments

September 30, 1997|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Child support collections in Carroll County for fiscal year 1997 exceeded $6 million, but about one-third of parents under court order to pay are not meeting their obligations, enforcement officials say.

The rate of payments collected -- 67 percent -- placed Carroll fourth among 24 state jurisdictions for the fiscal year that ended July 1, said Jamie Wehler, supervisor of the county's bureau of support, a division of the social services department.

Despite the encouraging news, the estimated arrearage for Carroll child support payments is more than $8 million, said James F. Brewer, chief of the child support division for the county state's attorney's office.

The county bureau of support annually handles more than 3,700 cases involving support for nearly 4,500 children, Wehler said.

The total keeps rising, she said, saying the state's attorney's office established 343 child support orders and 124 paternity cases in fiscal 1997.

The latest figures released by the state for Carroll County include neither support owed nor that collected privately, Wehler said.

More than 247,000 parents are under court order in Maryland to pay child support each month, but only 88,000, or 36 percent, are paying, according to Keith Snipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.

State enforcement officials estimate that child support arrearage exceeds $1.2 billion in Maryland and have authorized a study to determine how much is collectible.

That study, begun 13 months ago by the Regional Economic Studies Institute (RESI) of Towson University, is expected to be completed in January, said Anju Baluja, a research economist and RESI spokeswoman.

The study is looking at how old the arrearages are and why, or at what point, parents who were paying support stopped.

"Once that is known, programs can be implemented to get them paying again," Baluja said.

Preliminary findings show that some of the past-due debts are 20 to 25 years old and, in some cases, the parents are deceased, Baluja said.

In other instances, a parent was paying before being incarcerated or disabled. The regular payments stopped and the debt mounted.

The national average for collecting past-due support -- estimated at $34.5 billion -- is 6 percent, said Baluja.

In Carroll, collections rose less than $100,000 over the previous fiscal year, but court decisions re- garding support enforcement have forced procedural changes and made collections more difficult, said Wehler.

A Montgomery County judge's decision last year set back enforcement of contempt charges against those who did not pay child support.

In effect, that ruling said that if a father came into court and was unable to pay child support, he could not be held in contempt, even if he had the means to pay until the day before, Brewer said.

Some state programs, such as withholding motor vehicle registrations for those who are behind in child support, have helped increase collections, Wehler said.

One program that has been less effective than expected allows support enforcement officials to intercept individual state and federal tax refunds, Wehler said.

Either the number of exemptions affecting the amount of tax withheld from paychecks have been increased so annual tax re-

funds are smaller, or parents owing child support have found other ways to receive smaller refunds.

"The smaller the intercepted refund, the smaller the collectible amount," said Wehler.

But 1996 legislation requiring employers to provide the names of new workers for a computerized registry has been a boon to child support collections.

According to Clifford Layman, executive director of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration, 10 percent of those listed in the first month were parents who owed child support or were trying to collect child support from a former spouse.

Success notwithstanding, Brewer and Wehler said their staffs -- 23 full-time employees combined -- must spend 90 percent of their time tracking those who don't support their children.

New programs under consideration are focusing not only on collecting support, but on getting the absent parent to become more involved with his or her children, Wehler said.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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