The man came to court in leg chains, full of excuses for not paying $30,000 in back child support.
It wasn't his fault, he told the judge. He had been in prison for two years on a drunken-driving charge. Now he has a job that pays only $200 a week.
"I've got a second job for you," said an impatient Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels.
"Have you ever heard of Martin's West? [Martin R. Resnick] will hire you on the spot and pay you $7 an hour, more than you're making now," said the judge.
"If you don't take the job, I'm going to put you in jail."
In a novel arrangement, Daniels has been sending deadbeat parents to the area's largest catering business to find work for the past year.
The judge said he made the arrangement when he grew frustrated hearing the same story from parents who were tens of thousands of dollars behind in child support payments.
"They usually say `I haven't had a job. I can't find work,' " said Daniels.
"If you give him the opportunity to work and he doesn't bother to show up, it's just an excuse for not working and paying child support," he said.
The judge said he suspects many deadbeat parents work at jobs that pay them under the table to avoid paying taxes and child support.
The judge has sent about 20 people to Resnick, although the company has not kept track of the number who have worked at its facilities.
Daniels checks each case with Resnick's hiring office to see if the person shows up for work.
Though a small and informal program, the judge's efforts have impressed state officials who supervise child support enforcement.
"I think it's an excellent idea. It brings the power of the bench into play," said Michael Helms, director of the Baltimore County Office of Child Support.
"A lot of noncustodial parents, if ordered by a judge to seek employment -- or face penalties -- will be more inclined to do so. This gives them some incentive to go out and look for work," said Helms, who noted that most other programs are voluntary.
Helms said that as of June, $84 million was owed in the county in child support payments.
Statewide, $374 million was collected from parents owing child support during the last fiscal year, said Erlene Wilson, communications director for the state Department of Human Resources.
She said 43 percent of child support owed goes uncollected in Maryland.
The most powerful tool to get deadbeat parents to pay child support is the 1995 law allowing the state to suspend driver's licenses. Since the law was enacted, $103 million in delinquent payments have been collected.
Daniels started his program after he began sitting part-time as a family court judge a year ago.
He mentioned the problem with child support payments to his friend, Alex Tarasco, executive vice president at Martin's; Tarasco made the arrangements to hire the deadbeat parents.
Resnick, chairman of the board at Martin's, said he had been hiring the unemployed through other programs to help the poor.
He said he often starts people at $8 an hour.
"It's a little selfish because you can develop good, loyal employees," he said. "It's also nice to know you influence some people's lives if they come to work for you."
Pub Date: 9/19/99