Bay State No Place For `Deadbeat Dads'

Lawmakers mull tough child-support bill

BAY State Gov. William Weld (R) aims to crack down on "deadbeat" parents with a new legislative package that would make Massachusetts the nation's most aggressive state in collecting child support.

The legislation gives the Department of Revenue's child-support enforcement office greater power in tracking down delinquent parents, streamlines the process of obtaining child-support orders, and stiffens penalties.

"In far too many instances, regular and timely child-support checks are often the difference between welfare dependency and self-sufficiency," says Susan Brotchie, spokeswoman for the state chapter of the Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support, Inc. (ACES).

Nationally, 16 million children are owed $18 billion, says Debbie Kline, ACES Midwest regional director. In Massachusetts, 50,000 families await the issuance of child-support orders. Each year, taxpayers pay tens of millions of dollars to help those not getting support.

Just this week, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago was arrested in Florida for owing $35,769 to a son he has not seen in eight years. Mr. Drago, arraigned in Massachusetts Monday, is free on bail pending a Dec. 3 pretrial conference. He faces up to two years in jail.

Massachusetts officials estimate that the legislation would help more than 7,000 families get off public assistance, thereby saving taxpayers $67 million a year in Aid for Families with Dependent Children and Medicaid costs.

Provisions in the legislation would:

* Give the state's revenue department subpoena power to access employer, union, utility, and state licensing records to track down delinquent parents.

* Require hospitals to provide unmarried parents an opportunity to acknowledge parentage by signing a birth certificate.

* Toughen penalties by withholding lottery winnings and prohibiting officials from issuing or renewing any type of license for those who have debts. The legislation would raise sentences to terms of up to five years in jail or fines of up to $10,000.

Bay State officials crafted the legislative package, introduced last week, after studying other state enforcement programs. Several elements in Washington State's program were used.

The new legislation follows another Massachusetts initiative called the "Ten Most Wanted" project, in which posters showing mug shots and names of 10 state child-support delinquents are hung on billboards and in subways. The idea is to shame parents into paying their bills. Eight men in the state have been caught so far, while others have resumed payments.

Finding the parents is key, child advocates say. That is why gaining access to employer and other records through the legislation will help, says Barbara Leedom, communications director at the state Department of Revenue.

Enforcement advocates also applaud the provision requiring hospitals to encourage parents to sign a birth certificate. That way, legal paternity is established immediately - instead of through an expensive, adversarial court process. "Eighty percent of fathers go to the hospital when the child is born, so it's a very good way of getting paternity established," Ms. Kline says. "Some states have dubbed that the `happy hour' at the hospital because the Dad goes in to see his son or daughter and is very prou d to see his new child, and would be more willing to sign the birth certificate at that point."

But some doubt that the legislation will make a difference. According to Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the state Human Services Coalition, many fathers who do not pay support do not have much income. While she supports the idea of cracking down on parents who have money, she is afraid that the state will use the program as an excuse to cut back on its AFDC grants.

Nevertheless, Massachusetts officials say the legislation has bipartisan support in the state Legislature. "We're hoping to get it passed before Christmas," Ms. Leedom says.

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