Collecting child support

Our view: Getting delinquent parents to pay up requires a tailored approach

September 03, 2012

The stereotype of the lazy, irresponsible "deadbeat dad" who won't cough up the cash for Pampers and formula has been a fixture in the debate over why states have such a hard time collecting delinquent child-support payments from absent fathers. Every few years, lawmakers decide to get tough on the alleged miscreants by stiffening the penalties for missing a support payment, revoking their professional licenses or certifications and even, in some cases, throwing them in jail. Then they sit back and wonder why, despite the righteousness of the cause, nothing much seems to change.

The answer ought to be obvious: While it's easy to condemn parents who can't or won't support their kids as incorrigible scofflaws — and treat them accordingly — that doesn't get you very far if the goal is making them pay up.

That's why, over the past couple of years, Maryland has been looking for better ways to encourage noncustodial parents to meet their financial obligations to children they bring into the world. The state has begun making changes in the way it deals with noncustodial fathers and the mothers who often end up caring for their kids — and so far, at least, the approach seems to be yielding results.

As The Sun's Yvonne Wenger reported last week, Maryland has collected some $20.7 million more in child support payments this fiscal year than last, a 4.8 percent increase. In Baltimore City, collections were up even more, by 5 percent, or $3.2 million. As of the end of July, Maryland had distributed some $350 million in child support payments of the $530 million that was due. Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done, but the state is still substantially ahead of where it was this time last year.

What accounts for the change? According to Human Resources Secretary Theodore Dallas, state officials decided to tailor the collection effort to the specific circumstances of individual parents who were behind in their payments. First, they distinguished between the parents who, for whatever reason, couldn't afford to meet their obligations, and parents who had the means to do so but simply refused. Then they worked out a plan to deal with each parent's unique situation.

What the department found was that if a parent had been paying child support regularly but then suddenly stopped, the most likely cause was a recent loss of employment or income. Other reasons included illness, injury, eviction or a financial emergency related to any of those conditions. These were parents who generally would pay child support if they were able to, but they were going through a rough patch that temporarily prevented them from fulfilling their obligations.

In such cases, department social workers could help them back on their feet by offering job search and job-training assistance, helping them sort out hospital and medical bills and counseling services to assist them through the crisis. Since each parent's situation was different, workers had to design a plan that worked for them as well as their children and the parent who had custody. "You look at the whole family situation, the parents' connection with their kids and a person's ability to pay and then create a strategy along those lines," Mr. Dallas says.

Inevitably, there will always be some parents who really do fit the description of incorrigible scofflaws — even though it's a misconception they are the majority, Mr. Dallas says. "But even in those cases, you have to use discretion," he says. "It can be counterproductive if you take away a person's ability to make a living, and a lot of times just the threat of suspending a professional license or certification can get collections." And although jail is still an option when all other means of enforcing compliance are exhausted, most cases can be resolved short of that.

"It comes down to being more sophisticated about tailoring our responses to the cases," Mr. Dallas says, and "also being quicker in our responses. There's no one size that fits all." The department is getting better at that, though clearly it still has a long way to go. But if nothing else, the new approach has put a more human face on the department — and that alone may have improved collections. "It's how you use the tools you have," says Mr. Dallas, "and like a lot of things in life, that's always a balancing act."

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