Tracking parents who don't support children

No fewer than five child-support bills -- all designed to corral divorced parents who don't pay to support their offspring -- await Congress when it returns from recess.

Meanwhile, in this small community of 8,300 people about 30 miles from the capital, a tiny but effective volunteer program is showing what no-frills local government can do on its own to ease a problem of national significance.

Using six or seven elderly volunteers to track down parents (typically fathers) with a record of missing or late payments, the Support Enforcement Center in Loudon County, Va., has helped round up $60,000 in its first year.

The county's payment record already is significantly better than the rest of the country's.In 1981 only 35 percent of the 8.4 million women bringing up children alone received any off the child-support payments they were entitled to , according to Census Bureau figures.Only 22 percent received full payment.

In Loudon County, the statistics are parctically reversed. Of the 400 cases handled each year, only 20 percent are labeled "problems" by the center's director, Mark Crowley.

"And that doesn't mean that 20 percent aren't making their payments," says Mr. Crowley. "It just means they're having some sort of problem right now and need to be monitored."

It was that need for monitoring that drove Judge A. Burke Herta in 1981 to ask the Court Service Unit to put "something on the other end of his orders," says Crowley.

The county, unlike most other municipalities in the Washington metropolitan area, does not hire support enforcement officers, so problems of late or absent payments have often resulted in jail sentences for the fathers.

After investigating what neighboring counties did to avoid this problem, Mr. Crowley recruited a number of retired people as volunteers. One of them, Richard Thomas, the silver-haired president of the local taxpayers association, recalls how he was recruited. "I go around the county yelling, 'Volunteer! Volunteer!' because I feel a lot could be handled without setting up some bureaucratic department," Mr. Thomas says. "So they sort of backed me into a corner with this one."

The volunteers, called "officers," are "rich in life experience," he notes. "But they already knew how to deal with irresponsibility, handle bank accounts, motivate people."

First, of course, they have to find those who are neglecting their child-support responsibilities. That's not much of a problem in a community like Leesburg, according to Mr. Crowley. "If he's a native, somebody knows where he is. We have more trouble if he's a sojourner."

Kenneth Bennett, a retired CIA employee, says that "when we call up their sister or their mother and tell them we're so-and-so from the district court, that gets their attention."

The officers are careful to listen to the father's side of the story -- although "some will try and slicker you," says Al Guay, a retired civil servant. "Many of these people don't have bank accounts," says Mr. Bennett. "They get paid and want to buy a truck, and there it goes. We have to convince them that their kids come first."

The job of the volunteers is to do "whatever it takes to get that payment made," Mr. Crowley explains. "Get [the parent] a job, or take him to (Alcoholics Anonymous], or help him plan his finances."

Although the program has not yet been evaluated for its rate of success, the officers report a decline in the number of problem cases. "At the beginning, I would have three or four cases on Friday [their court date]. Now, I have one or two," says Mr. Thomas. "[The fathers] are conditioned to call me if they have a problem meeting payments," he explains.

Wouldn't it be easier to have paid employees? "Yes," says Mr. Crowley. "But not more effective -- their volunteering puts humanity on the end of the court order. What these gentlemen represents is the community; they're not in bondage to the system."

"I don't see much difference between this and a volunteer fire department in a community that can't afford to hire firemen," adds Mr. Guay.

The officers interviewed in Leesburg, however, say they wouldn't want to be paid. "It would take away some of the dignity for me," Mr. Guay says. "For retired folk, it's important that we be allowed to make a contribution to the community. If they paid me for doing this, it wouldn't be the same."

But the men said they were willing to have their jobs made obsolete by one of the bills proposed in Congress, which would set up an automatic deduction in the wages of those owing child-support payments. "When a man skips the state -- that's happened here a couple of times," says on the officers, "it becomes a federal problem. This would let them know that there's nowhere that they're safe."

Rep. Marge Roukema (R) of New Jersey, whose bill proposes the automatic child-support deduction, says, "I've been surprised and gratified by the support we've had on this issue. We've had letters from women's organizations and probation officers," as well as notes from "grandparents living on meager retirement incomes and trying to support their grown children" whose husbands aren't making the child-support payments. "We haven't begun to plumb the depth of what this issue is costing society," she says.

Congress is sorting through the proposals and they come up with a composite bill in the fall, Representatives Roukema thinks. Meanwhile, Loudon's volunteers will continue to pull in the court-ordered funds, says Mr. Bennett.

"I brought in a lot more money than usual one month, so I told Mark that I thought I deserved a bonus," Mr. Bennett teases. "He told me he couldn't give me that, but he'd be happy to double my salary. . . ."

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