Taxman Cometh to Many `Deadbeat' Parents

In California pilot project, tax officials prove more effective than courts in collecting child support

CALIFORNIA is getting tough on ``deadbeat'' parents - those delinquent on paying child support - mirroring a trend nationwide.

Its latest approach: using the taxman to help collect past-due payments.

The rationale is that state tax authorities have better access to financial assets and can move quicker in collecting payments from delinquent parents than going through court procedures.

Already, the program is showing results. A pilot project in six of the 58 counties has garnered more than $2 million in delinquent payments in two months.

State officials expect to take in $14 million-plus under the program this year, though some are uneasy about tax authorities prying into peoples' lives.

``It is a great advantage to us,'' says Barbara Catlow, assistant director of the bureau of family-support operations for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. ``The tax people are good at getting the easy money faster.''

California's initiative is the latest state attempt to recover a huge pool of unpaid child support. Some 17 million children are owed $34 billion in payments nationwide. The unpaid money has driven families into poverty and added to welfare costs.

Some states, like California, are turning to the taxman to help with collecting. Massachusetts revenue officials have been involved in such efforts for years, while Arkansas and Montana are instituting similar programs.

Some states deny licenses

Other states - including South Dakota, Maine, Florida, and Illinois - recently moved to deny drivers' licenses to parents owing payments. Some withhold professional licenses as well.

``States are getting tough,'' says Eleanor Landstreet, director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Even with these steps, however, nonpayment remains embarrassingly high. Federal statistics show states recouped payments on only 18.7 percent of 1992 cases - down from 19.3 percent in 1991. Thus, some advocacy groups are urging greater efforts by states and an expanded federal role in collecting.

``The states still aren't doing very well,'' says Geraldine Jensen, president of the Ohio-based Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, a national self-help group.

California has been among those with unenviable records. Children Now, an advocacy group, ranks the state 36th out of 45 states that have comparable statistics in child-support compliance.

County district attorneys are responsible for recovering much of the delinquent payments. That means 58 agencies - and levels of resolve. It also means it can be difficult to track down individuals (most of whom are men) who move from county to county.

The pilot project is one attempt to plug holes. Under the program, the state Franchise Tax Board, acting as the collector of last resort, takes overdue cases from district attorneys in the six counties.

10 days to pay up

The tax board sends demand notices to delinquent parents and gives them 10 days to make payment arrangements. If they don't, the agency has the authority to deduct money from an individual's wages and bank accounts or seize property.

Prosecutors can now pursue some of these actions. But it often takes months or years to go through the legal process, allowing scofflaws time to change jobs or close accounts.

Thus, child-support advocacy groups laud the pilot program as a speedier and more effective way to enforce payment, though some would like to see it go statewide now instead of waiting two years. Others think the state still needs to do more to centralize collection and compile information on delinquent parents.

There is also a push to take the idea a step farther. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would empower the Internal Revenue Service to take over collection from the states.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, author of one bill, argues that the IRS has the most extensive resources to enforce payments and would save money: The federal government pays two-thirds of state collection costs.

State officials, though, believe that the task is best kept out of Washington, and some officials question whether the IRS would be an effective - or proper - agency to collect nontax money. Others raise privacy concerns.

President Clinton, who has emphasized the need to improve collection methods, is expected to suggest a modestly expanded federal role when he unveils his welfare-reform package.

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