Catching up with parents who don't pay child support

Thousands of men who expect refund checks from the Internal Revenue Service may get families to support instead.

As the newest tooth in the bite of the federal Child Support Enforcement program, this interception of IRS refunds may garner $100 million from parents who are delinquent in their court-ordered child support payments. States have submitted 550,000 names of parents in hopes of reimbursement for payments currently made by the state under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Eighty percent of children benefiting from AFDC are eligible because a parent is absent and not paying support. In an effort to reduce this caseload, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have been required since 1975 to trace and to collect money from parents who owe child support payments. Ninety-five percent of those tracked are men.

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement provides 75 percent of the cost of the programs and helps in locating parents through social security, IRS, and Department of Defense records. Money is taken out of retirement pay or wages of military personnel, federal employees, or state employees.

While acknowledging the federal program's tremendous progress, its deputy director, Fred Schutzman, is planning to cut $100 million from its budget, a move he says is for efficiency, not economy. ''AFDC collections are starting to level off and administrative costs are starting to explode,'' he says. ''One purpose of the program is to reduce or avoid welfare costs and they (state programs) aren't doing that. We're a collection agency, not an employment agency.''

States say their record is good. Thirty-three state programs collect more than they spend. But some state directors say less federal involvement would make finding deserting fathers an ever more elusive goal.

It took Massachusetts three years to find a former police officer who had been divorced in the state and was the father of three minor children. He had gone to a Western state. Under the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act , Massachusetts asked for $120 a week for the family as well as the $18,000 the man was in arrears. The Western state set payments of $225 a month. The AFDC case was closed. Massachusetts officials are very optimistic they will recover the $18,000 through the IRS program.

''There is a strong push by the federal government to pull back and reduce enforcement,'' says Robert Elvin, director of Oregon's child support unit. ''It's a serious threat and the program is now at a crucial stage.'' Since 1956 Oregon has gone after those negligent in child support payments. Mr. Elvin has been in the program for 18 years. He remembers the struggle the state had before the federal program began and says federal involvement is absolutely vital. States are hesitant to make cuts now if the whole burden of the program is to fall to them eventually, he says.

Massachusetts was one of the later states to take money from the wages of delinquent parents within the state, but Dennis Sullivan, director of the state's enforcement, says this has proved agreeable. ''Employers like it because the worker is more productive. The employee likes it because it is money he doesn't even see. And the credit union has a new account and use of the money for the month,'' he says.

Mr. Sullivan says that while some see nonsupport as a victimless crime, ''there's the potential of a 'victim' crime for 18 years if a child grows up on public assistance when there is no need.'' Since August, Massachusetts has served 200 warrants for criminal nonsupport and has about 12,000 more warrants ready.

''We only go after people we and the court feel can contribute,'' Mr. Sullivan says.

But Alvin Schorr, professor of family and child welfare at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, disagrees. ''All they're doing is pursuing people who are reasonably desperate anyway,'' he says. The reason more money isn't collected is because ''fathers don't earn very much. They may have started new families and the money dredged out of them may put their second families on welfare,'' he says. ''I think the federal program has been unduly demanding and callous.'' Michigan's enforcement program, often commended as a success, Professor Schorr considers ''prideful.''

Jerrold Brockmyre, director of Michigan's child support enforcement, responds , ''We do hound people, but it's somebody's responsibility. He who plays, pays.'' He finds delinquent parents from ''dire economic straits to the very wealthy.'' He says each case is handled individually. ''A lot of them do have a second family and the financial situation of the second family is considered by the court.'' Michigan is one of 15 states that intercept state income tax refunds going to parents who owe child support.

Frequently starting their search with only a name and approximate age as clues, the state programs establish paternity when necessary and get a court order of support payments when one is lacking. Traces are done for nonwelfare families, at no charge in some states.

Establishing paternity is expensive but Mr. Brockmyre says it pays off in the long run. ''That child has a father and is entitled to the same rights as any child of the father. It could be a little and it could be a lot.''

Critic Schorr and directors Schutzman and Elvin agree that the bounties the federal government pays to states -- which are paid according to how much a state increases its collections over the national average or as a 15 percent share of any money recovered from an AFDC case -- are irrational. Calling them ''backward incentives,'' Mr. Elvin says they encourage leaving public assistance cases open and not letting them become private and thus unrewardable.

Mr. Elvin is also concerned with the impact on society but says his goals are long range. ''I want the child who may become a father in a few years to realize that we expect a parent to support his family. To do this we have to go after the tough cases, spread the word to the father's buddies.''

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