Agencies improve rate of paid child support

Carroll's rate in 1998 grew to nearly 70%, 3rd highest in state

January 24, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Carroll County moved up a notch to place third in Maryland in collecting current child-support payments, with a rate of nearly 70 percent for fiscal 1998, according to figures released this month by the state.

The state Department of Human Resources set a goal of $6 million for the county, and collections totaled about $6.7 million, said James F. Brewer, who heads the nine-member child-support division in the county state's attorney's office.

That included $4.7 million of about $6.8 million in child support due that fiscal year. Carroll also collected $2 million in back payments.

The figures were released by the state Department of Human Resources for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Carroll ranks behind Washington and Talbot counties in percentage collected.

In the previous fiscal year, Brewer said, a 67 percent collection rate placed Carroll fourth in the state.

Past-due support, however, still amounts to about $9 million, he said.

"That's an awfully high figure, but compared to what is owed throughout the state -- about $1 billion -- we're not in bad shape. Most is due to the custodial parent, usually the mother."

In about 68 percent of Carroll County cases, some money was paid during fiscal 1998 -- also above the 61 percent goal set by the state.

Many parents who shirk their child-support payments are simply difficult to deal with, he said, but others have left the state and even gone underground -- getting new names and Social Security numbers. Some turn out to be dead or in jail.

The county had 413 new child-support cases entered last year, 70 more than the year before, he said.

Carroll ranked first in surpassing another goal, which was set to make sure court orders for child support are obtained where needed, Brewer said.

"The goal was to obtain a support order in 70-plus percent of the cases," he said. "Here, we have 77.5 percent under order -- so compared to our goal, we're No. 1 in having the highest percentage over the goal."

Surpassing goals

As of June, he said, the state's attorney had obtained support orders in 2,783 cases of the 3,590 that needed them.

"We've always done so well, they set higher goals for us, and we surpass them," he said.

The figures for fiscal 1998 include welfare cases in which child support is paid to the state rather than the custodial parent. In nonwelfare cases, the custodial parent pays a one-time fee of $25 to use the child-support services of the county Department of Social Services.

While collection "is more a function of Social Services," Brewer said, "they refer the case to us -- either to establish the order for child-support obligation or to take the guy to court."

"We get the order from the court and we enforce the order when the people don't pay it," he said of his office's role.

The two departments also work together to establish paternity cases. Brewer said a new program in which social workers ask fathers at the hospital to acknowledge paternity when a baby is born has been successful.

"The state gave us a 90 percent goal" for establishing paternity, he said. "We have 92.66 -- one of the highest in the state."

In the past 10 years or so, Carroll had 4,375 cases that needed a paternity order and obtained orders in 4,054 of them.

Counties with higher rates -- Somerset, Kent and Garrett -- have much smaller caseloads, he said.

Figures for the metropolitan area indicate that paternity has been established in more than 73 percent of cases in Baltimore and about 70 percent in Baltimore County, with other surrounding counties ranging from the low to high 80s.

Child-support orders are served by sheriff's deputies, and can be enforced in various ways, including wage garnishment, interception of tax refunds and lottery winnings, and driver's license suspensions.

Even out-of-state collection is getting easier, Brewer said, thanks to changes in the past several years that revamped the process and eased interstate cooperation. Carroll has extradited parents from California, Florida, Kentucky, Arizona -- "all over."

Shift in approach

The approach to child-support collection has shifted recently from coercion to cooperation -- for instance, the term "deadbeat dad" is out of vogue, Brewer said. They seek jail time only in cases with no hope of collecting.

"When we file criminally, it's because the civil approach didn't work, so the focus is not to get money but to put the guy in jail," he said. This approach is used about 10 to 15 times a year -- "just the worst cases."

Halfway through fiscal 1999, Brewer said the collection rate appears to be above last year.

"Historically, we have generally exceeded previous years by about a half a million dollars, for the past 10 or 12 years."

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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