Parents statewide seek amnesty

Hundreds in arrears on child support take advantage of grace period

September 15, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Thomas Knox Jr. had $30,000 in past-due child support, a warrant out for his arrest, and a lawyer quietly telling him to skip town.

Instead, he walked into the place he might have feared most - the Baltimore County child-support enforcement office - and set up a plan to pay.

"I've got another lawyer - Jesus," Knox, 38, said this week after he had arranged for money to be taken from his city paycheck for his 15-year-old daughter. "I know I owe the money. It makes me feel better, because I" haven't got to hide any more.

Knox was one of hundreds of parents who took advantage this week of the first statewide child-support "amnesty" - a five-day grace period in which parents could report to authorities without fear of arrest on bench warrants if they at least started to pay what they owed.

For parents who couldn't do even that, child-support workers had training programs to offer, geared in particular to help unemployed or low-income men start making enough money to take care of their children. New court dates were set so judges could review those parents' progress.

"You try to work out something, so that he can live, but that is going to be amicable for both sides," said Richard Dumas, a supervisor for Maximus, the private company responsible for child-support collections in the city, as he surveyed a crowd of customers in the company's waiting room Wednesday. "For child support, jail is the very last step. Nobody wins."

The amnesty program is an attempt to collect millions of dollars in unpaid support from parents. A report recently published by Baltimore's Abell Foundation criticized the state's child support guidelines, saying Maryland support orders are set so impossibly high that many low-income parents have no hope of paying them. State officials counter that the amounts ordered are necessary for the children involved.

According to preliminary numbers, the amnesty program had attracted 2,000 parents, collected $105,925 and established 548 new automatic payroll deductions as of midday yesterday. Officials say they won't know final numbers for a couple of weeks, because some parents with cases in Maryland went to child support offices in Washington and Northern Virginia, which also participated in the program.

Denise Davis, executive director of the Women's Law Center of Maryland, which has followed the issue on behalf of custodial mothers, said that while the amnesty program may give scofflaws a break in terms of avoiding arrest, its ultimate goal is laudable - getting some of the money that custodial parents have sought. While the warrants are wiped away, arrears are not.

"The goal for the custodial parent is to have the child support paid," Davis said. "If this [amnesty effort] ... causes a serious attempt at paying child support and causes some child support to be paid, then that's an effective tool."

Child support workers have been trying to find some of the newly contrite for years.

One man in his 30s had moved to Texas to avoid child-support warrants in Maryland. Notified by family members here of the amnesty week, he moved back to town, got a new job and came into the Baltimore County office Tuesday to arrange for payments to be deducted from his wages, said county support enforcement agent Anita Vesely.

Some who came in wanted to recover their driver's licenses, which are suspended if payments are more than three months behind.

Tyrone Pompey, 41, of Baltimore said his license had been suspended for several years. The son he once supported is now 20, but Pompey owed $905 in back payments before he approached city workers this week with $100 and information about where they could get more.

"It was really out of stupidity," Pompey, who works at a Catonsville retirement home, said when asked why he had not paid. "My son's mother took him out of my life. I figured I couldn't see my son, why pay my support?"

Dante Goines had a different problem: no job and, with a painful steel rod in his right leg after being wounded in a shooting, few prospects for one. Dumas referred the 33-year-old Baltimore man to an employment program, urging him to write down as much as possible about his disability. "The more they know, the more they can customize the job to something you're able to do," Dumas said.

As for Knox, his $30,000 Baltimore County case was only the tip of the iceberg. He planned to visit Maximus to begin dealing with support he owes three other children in the city.

The amnesty program continues today at child-support enforcement offices around the state.

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