Delinquent parents get a chance to catch up on child support

Amnesty program helps with jobs, managing debt

August 10, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN STAFF

Martin Hall says there are two reasons he's taking steps to start paying the $16,725 in back child support he owes: his newfound faith and his mother.

Hall, who has a 7-year-old son with a former girlfriend, became a Jehovah's Witness in June. The Scripture, he says, instructs a man to "take care of his household." Meanwhile, his mother sent him an e-mail about a two-week statewide amnesty program to help parents pay up.

"Some things you take even more seriously as you get older," said Hall, who is 37 and unemployed.

He was one of 347 people who met last week with workers at the Office of Child Support Enforcement in Baltimore. The amnesty program, which runs through Saturday, gives delinquent parents with warrants the opportunity to discuss their cases without immediate prosecution.

It also gives parents like Hall, who are not in such dire legal straits but do owe money, the chance to pay a portion of their debt now and set up long-term payment plans. Child support professionals can help them find jobs by referring them to placement firms with available listings. And for those who have lost their driver's licenses because of their debt, the program provides a work-restricted license to get to and keep a job.

"If you're worried about food and shelter for yourself and you're living day to day, you're not working at a responsible parent level," said Brian Shea, executive director of the state's Child Support Enforcement Administration. "So one of our key goals is to get people to stay on their feet, not just get them on their feet."

For the first time, Arlington County, Va., and Washington are administering comparable programs over the same period, an effort to track down individuals who might have moved across state lines.

Maryland is due $1.4 billion in back child-support payments from more than 200,000 people, according to Shea. About two-thirds of that money would be paid to the parents to whom it's owed; the rest would remain with the state to offset the cost of providing public assistance.

Shea said that across Maryland last week, 850 people inquired about amnesty, and the state collected nearly $170,000. In Washington, 692 people inquired about the amnesty program, and $80,000 was collected, while in Arlington County, 25 people sought amnesty, paying a total of $13,441 toward their debt, according to officials in those jurisdictions.

Twenty people who sought amnesty in Baltimore were arrested because they were wanted in warrants for other crimes, said Col. Barry Powell of the city sheriff's office.

"We made it clear in our letters to people and in our talking points that people would only be held harmless from arrest for child support," Shea said.

Parents who are unemployed, incarcerated or facing tough times financially often have trouble paying child support. The bills can add up quickly, leaving them with a mountain of debt. For the state workers tasked with collecting payments, it can be tough to locate a parent who moves a lot or deliberately evades officials.

Last week, a steady trickle of fathers -- and a few mothers -- wandered into Maryland child support offices to learn more about the amnesty program. Some plunked down a payment, however small, to show that they were trying. Others said they were unemployed and had nothing to give, but asked for help finding a job.

Hall was issued a work-restricted driver's license and told to report to a local job placement firm at 5:30 the next morning. Hall has worked a string of odd jobs and inquired about others, including work as a security guard and driving a cab. Still, he has had trouble finding reliable employment.

Jeffrey White, an enforcement specialist with the Baltimore City Office of Child Support Enforcement, told Hall how important it is for him to find steady work.

"You have to say this is the first step. This may not be the job you want, but this is a job," White said afterward. "We don't ever want to be in a position where we collect $1,000 today and don't see the guy again for three years."

Nathaniel Williams, 37, has a different reason why he has more than $72,000 in child support debt. Williams spent the last 11 years in a federal prison for conspiracy to distribute heroin, he said. He was released in June. Williams said he previously served a five-year sentence for another drug conviction.

"I'm trying to get straight," said Williams, who attended Southern High School.

Williams, who has a large tattoo of his fiancee on his left bicep, has six children by five women. He said he has kept in close touch with the women and his children during his time in prison, and he aims to do right by them now that he's out. Three of his children, he said proudly, are off to college, and one is in the Air Force.

"It's no one's fault but mine that I wasn't there for them," Williams said. "I made a mistake."

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