The Baltimore County justice system is working to track down more "deadbeat" fathers and mothers and is pushing for new ways to collect the nearly $30 million they owe in child support to county parents.
County Sheriff R. Jay Fisher's deputies are serving more nonsupport warrants than ever before. Prosecutors have started charging nonpaying parents criminally. And judges and other county officials are trying to secure federal funding for a program that would meld job training with strict child support enforcement.
"The word gets out," Fisher said. "It shows we're not doing things like usual."
The county's multipronged effort is part of a growing trend of jurisdictions nationwide using alternative methods to tackle the problem of child support underpayment.
According to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, more than $92 billion in accumulated unpaid support is due children nationwide. In Maryland, $1.4 billion has accumulated, according to the office.
When Fisher took his job last year, he said, he was stunned to learn that there were nearly 3,000 outstanding warrants in his jurisdiction for parents who had not paid child support. If a nonpayment case has a warrant attached to it, it probably means the parent is a chronic underpayer and has been held in contempt of court.
Fisher was even more flabbergasted, he said, when he saw the amount of child support owed in the county: $30 million.
"When I first heard that, my thought was, `That's impossible,'" he said.
He decided to make serving those warrants a priority for his office. In the first three months of this year, he said, deputies served almost 70 percent more warrants than they did during the same time last year. But taking parents to court is only part of the battle. Judges must figure out what to do with them.
The challenge, Baltimore County Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan said, is helping some parents get jobs so they can pay, while cracking down on those intentionally shirking their responsibility.
To address that latter group, Baltimore County has started prosecuting a small number of parents with criminal nonsupport, an offense that carries a potential three-year jail sentence. Assistant State's Attorney Steve Bailey estimated that about 20 people have been charged this way in the past six months.
Usually, child support cases are civil matters. If someone refuses to pay, the court can garnish that person's wages. But if the parent refuses to get a job or to disclose under-the-table pay, the judge has little recourse in a civil case.
In the criminal system, a judge can use jail time as a threat.
"Criminal nonsupport is valuable as a tool," Hennegan said. "For instance, if you've got a job, good salary, I can force you to pay. In civil, if you say, `Hey, I'm not going to pay,' I can't force you to do anything."
Brian Shea, the executive director of Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Administration, which collects and distributes child support money, said more and more prosecutors in Maryland are starting to use the criminal nonsupport law.
"It's amazing how, when you put on a jump suit and handcuffs, you all of a sudden remember you're employable and able to find a job," he said.
But Shea and others say incarceration is a last resort. People in jail can't pay child support.
And the percentage of deadbeat parents who belong in the criminal system is small, prosecutors say.
"We're really looking for people who are willfully trying to avoid their child support obligations, not people who have fallen on hard times, who have been sick or something like that," Bailey said.
Sheryl Goldstein, the Baltimore County criminal justice coordinator, said county officials examined a sample of chronic nonpaying parents - those who had appeared in court for two or more contempt proceedings. They found that many had criminal records and some needed drug treatment. Many had problems finding jobs.
So county officials and judges designed a program that would connect a job-support program to child support enforcement. It was an effort similar to those in other states, such as Michigan and California, which match nonpaying parents with job training.
In the Baltimore County model, full-time case managers would work in the court helping the parents get jobs.
Those case managers would report to the judges, to let them know that a client was - or was not - trying to find work. "From the perspective of a judge, you know if they're making a real effort," Hennegan said. "If they're just not doing what they told you they were doing, you know it."
The county estimates that the program will cost $150,000 a year and is hoping federal grants will pay for it. The state, according to county officials, has said it cannot help with the cost.
"We're all excited about it, but we're all concerned that it's not going to get funded," Hennegan said. "If we get our grant in May, we could be up and running as soon as we could hire caseworkers."