SHEILA THOMPSON of Salem, Mass., didn't know where to turn after she separated from her husband and lost her job. With few skills and two young daughters to care for, she resorted to food stamps and a monthly welfare payment of $579. Her husband wasn't paying any child support.
``I wasn't receiving anything. He didn't bother to pay,'' Ms. Thompson says. ``I didn't have the resources or the income to seek legal counsel and I really believed that [the welfare office] would go after him for child support.'' Her dependency on welfare lasted 1-1/2 years, until state welfare and revenue department officials finally pursued legal action against her husband.
Now that the case is resolved, Thompson will soon be receiving a $750 monthly child-support payment from her husband and will no longer need to rely on public assistance. With the extra money, she hopes to get her bachelor's degree and eventually become a nutritionist.
``These child-support payments will help me afford to continue my education and to have a little better means of support,'' she says.
Thompson and millions of parents like her resort to welfare because of unpaid child support. In some cases, state officials don't aggressively pursue child-support scofflaws. In other cases, welfare recipients are afraid or unaware of how to pursue these so-called ``deadbeat parents'' on their own. The absent parents are mostly fathers.
Nationally, the issue has become a major concern as taxpayers shoulder the escalating costs of welfare, and states across the country attempt to ``reinvent'' their welfare systems.
According to Debbie Kline, Midwest regional director of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, 20 million children are owed $24 billion in unpaid child support.
Tracking down ``deadbeat'' parents is also under discussion as a key element of President Clinton's new welfare reform package, which may be unveiled next month. And here in the Bay State, Gov. William Weld (R) is pushing for passage of what is considered by many the most comprehensive state child-support enforcement legislation in the country.
The Massachusetts proposal would give the state broad powers to track down absent parents. Specifically, it would require hospitals to encourage paternity acknowledgement at the time of a child's birth, permit the state to revoke professional and in some cases driver's licenses of scofflaws, and make nonpayment of child support a felony. The bill would also allow the state Department of Revenue to access address records of utility companies and licensing boards.
In addition, the legislation gives the state authority to pursue employers of child support scofflaws who aren't covering their children through their health-care plans. Such employers would be held liable for the full amount of medical costs of an absent parent's children.
``If this is passed, this would give Massachusetts far and away the most aggressive and comprehensive set of statutes in child enforcement in the nation,'' says Bay State Revenue Commissioner Mitchell Adams.
Weld's child-support bill failed in the legislature when it was introduced a year ago. The governor reintroduced it in April, and it has since been modified to be less stringent. Administration officials now believe it has bipartisan support and will pass the legislature before the General Court's session ends Jan. 4.
Approved last week by the House of Representatives in a 145-to-0 vote, it now faces Senate action.
But even without the bill, Massachusetts is already recognized as a leader in the area of child-support enforcement. For one thing, the state has started an innovative computer matching program to freeze bank accounts of noncustodial parents who owe child support. In addition, Massachusetts has a ``Ten Most Wanted'' project, in which pictures of child-support delinquents are displayed on billboards and in subways. As a result of these and other efforts, the Bay State has increased child-support collections approximately 10 percent each year over the past three years, Mr. Adams says.
Nevertheless, some groups say Weld's new proposal unfairly punishes the poor. Mike Gallagher, acting executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, says many absent fathers don't have money to pay child support anyway. ``They really ought to have some programs for training and education aimed at these young fathers as well so that their ability to earn and contribute to their children's upbringing is enhanced,'' Mr. Gallagher says.
And civil libertarians say the new legislation gives government too much power to pry into private lives. ``Anytime the state goes in and grabs private membership lists we have a problem,'' says John Roberts, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. He adds: ``There is a basic right to association here. ... People may belong to certain things and not necessarily want it to be made public or want the government to know about it.''
Thompson, however, appreciates the fact that she and her two young daughters now have the benefit of child support.
* Requires hospitals to encourage paternity acknowledgment at the time of birth.
* Allows state to revoke professional or drivers' licenses for failure to pay child support.
* Allows state to hold employers of absent parents liable for children's medical costs.