Pay up or else

Our view : Maryland needs to get more serious about cracking down on deadbeat parents

October 27, 2008

A state legislative audit has found that the Child Support Enforcement Administration is owed $1.5 billion in unpaid child support payments. That sounds like a lot of money - and a lot of deadbeat dads - until you realize the figure includes the cumulative unpaid child support since the agency began keeping records in the 1974. Much of the debt still on the books was incurred by absent parents who have long since died or disappeared; the state's chief auditor estimates that only about half of it would be considered collectible today.

Still, Maryland isn't doing nearly a good enough job of using the tools it has to collect court-ordered child support payments. Among other things, auditors found the agency failed to get state authorities to suspend the occupational licenses of delinquent parents, to obtain accurate Social Security numbers that would let it garnish wages or to seize funds in delinquent parents' bank accounts.

Granted, it isn't always as easy it sounds to use such methods to crack down on deadbeat parents, as Child Support Enforcement Administration officials argued at a hearing last week. Many of the techniques rely on complex automated computer systems that share files with other agencies. It takes time to work out procedures for matching lists of delinquent parents with those of other agencies. But the point is, the tools are available and enforcement officials need to make better use of them.

For example, the state issues a range of professional licenses for various occupations, from plumbers and commercial fishermen to accountants and stockbrokers. No one would argue these parents should lose their jobs - and their ability to pay child support. But if they're not making payments, threatening to suspend their licenses could be useful in coaxing them to pay up.

Even the auditors admit that there are some parents who will always avoid their responsibilities. Officials can never collect all the money owed to Maryland children. Last year, the Child Support Enforcement Administration took in more than $500 million from absent parents and distributed it to the families of the 108,000 children entitled to support. Over the last two years, the agency has collected more than $1 billion in support payments.

But state officials could collect even more if they corrected the problems found by auditors and made better use of all the tools at the agency's disposal. Collecting money owed to Maryland children is an ongoing task, because if delinquent parents think they can get away with it, they will - which is why the state needs to stay on their case until they pay up.

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