Richard Eidinger Jr. has been in and out of court for two years. He's been locked up. And he's been threatened with more jail time if he doesn't pay more of the $26,000 in child support he owes his ex-wife.
Still, the 26-year-old father acknowledges that he hasn't managed to pay more than $70 a week lately. He told a judge at a recent contempt hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court that it's not because he doesn't want to make his payments but because he can't find a good-paying job.
"I think we should find him a better job," Judge John O. Hennegan responded.
Until recently, that was a statement the judge had no authority to utter.
He could order parents to pay child support. He could direct their employers to subtract the payments directly from their paychecks. And he could send some nonpaying parents to jail for not obeying his orders.
But the judge could do nothing about the one complaint he hears most frequently from fathers who are behind in child support payments: They can't find a job.
A new initiative - developed in large part by Hennegan and funded through a $150,800 federal grant - aims to address that very problem. Launched this month, Baltimore County's Family Employment and Support Program pairs chronic underpayers with an employment coordinator who meets weekly with the parent to help him find a full-time job and monitor his child support payments.
Participants must show evidence that they've applied for at least four jobs a week, said Janet Glover-Kerkvliet, the first of two court employment coordinators to be hired with the grant money. (The other is expected to be hired next month.)
"When we see they're serious about getting a job, we'll start marketing them through our network of employers," Glover-Kerkvliet said.
In her first three weeks of work and after only two mornings of court hearings for men accused of owing up to tens of thousands of dollars in child support obligations, Glover-Kerkvliet enrolled about a dozen parents in the program.
Susan Engle Parks, special counsel for the Baltimore County Office of Child Support, said she is eager to see what kind of results the employment coordinators get with the parents - mostly fathers - who say they can't pay child support because they don't have a job.
"It's an opportunity to take that defense away," she said. "We'll say, `Fine, we'll help you find a job.' That way, we weed out the ones who really can't find work from the ones who are just not paying because they don't like the mothers or for whatever other reason."
Baltimore County justice system officials estimate that $30 million in unpaid child support is owed in the county. Nationally, that figure has climbed to more than $92 billion, according to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. In Maryland, $1.4 billion in unpaid child support has accumulated, according to the office.
`Jail or this program'
Hennegan is blunt about the options of the nonpaying parents who reach his courtroom.
"It's jail or this program," the judge said.
For parents facing the prospect of time behind bars for not paying child support, the county's FESP project is an attractive alternative.
"Jail is like a last resort, for people who have committed a crime," said Rashid M. Hall, 30, who recently agreed to participate in the new employment program and, according to court records, owes about $20,000 in child support. "Is not paying a bill really a crime? Putting somebody in a cage, that's not an answer."
With a 5-year-old boy, an infant son and his wife of five years working full-time as a nurse, Hall says he has been the Owings Mills family's stay-at-home dad. The child to whom Hall owes child support is an 11-year-old boy he says he has never met - the result of a fling he had in his hometown of Parsons, Kansas, after his high school graduation, he said.
Hall was ordered in November 1994 to pay $100 a month in child support and $25 a month toward the amount he owed but had not paid since the child's birth, court records show.
Asked by Hennegan what problem had kept him from getting a job to help him pay the child support he owes, Hall said, "There's no problem. I just haven't put my best foot forward."
"Well," the judge said, "we're willing to help you do that."
Help is appreciated
Eidinger, the Waverly man who owes his ex-wife about $26,000 in support for their 8- and 5-year-old sons, expressed similar appreciation for the court-ordered chance to find better-paying work than the $15,000-a-year job he has as a waiter at a Bob Evans restaurant in Glen Burnie.
"If they're willing to work with me, maybe I can get back into a job like the ones I had," he said in an interview after his recent court hearing, referring to better-paying positions he held in recent years at credit card collection agencies and a Hanover restaurant.
In court, he told the judge: "If you can help me get a better job, I'll definitely go and work it."