Grace period

August 12, 2005

NOT ALL "deadbeat parents" shirk their responsibility willingly. Some just need a second chance to start or resume regular payments for the care of their children.

Proof comes in their response to Maryland's two-weeks-only offer to ease or waive the penalties for nonpayment if parents would come into a social services office with a good-faith payment. In the first seven workdays, 1,293 people have walked in - and paid $250,000. It's a mere slice of the estimated $1.4 billion the state is owed, but it's something.

The offer ends tomorrow; the offices will be open that morning until noon.

The money is good for the children - and good for the state, which pays many custodial parents via welfare when mandated child support fails to show. But the office visit could be good for the whole family: If it turns out a parent isn't paying because he lost his driver's license as a penalty for not paying and now can't get to a job, the state worker can issue a work-restricted license and direct him to a local job placement firm. If a parent has lost visitation rights for nonpayment, working out a payment plan could win them back.

Most of Maryland's parents who owe child support pay up. They total some 145,000 compared with the 60,000 who don't. Among the nonpayers' top reasons are being incarcerated and losing their jobs. And once a parent falls behind, additional penalties add to the payments.

Caring for one's child is a basic personal and civic responsibility. It's right that the state is rigorous in trying to obtain money from children's noncustodial parents. But it's also appropriate to try to understand their situations, or, as Brian Shea, chief of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration puts it, "to get people to stay on their feet, not just get them on their feet."

While the amnesty is ending, longer-term programs such as two pilots running in Baltimore and Harford counties will continue to help formerly deadbeat parents climb the employment ladder, enhancing their own and their children's prospects. If these or similar programs prove worthwhile, they should be expanded throughout the state. There are few better investments than helping people help themselves.

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