INVESTIGATIVE reporter David Farrell has a simple item of news for the millions of parents across the United States who have left their children financially deserted: You can run, but you cannot hide.
Mr. Farrell has written a ``how-to'' book offering advice on locating anyone who has left even the faintest track in the country's vast public data banks. He drew on skills acquired during 17 years of tracking down private and public swindlers to write ``Find Them Fast! A Guide to Finding Anyone Quickly, Cheaply, and Easily.''
Farrell's slim volume, published in February, has especially appealed to people eager to run down ``deadbeat'' mothers and fathers. He has apparently enabled many people to sidestep overburdened or indifferent social workers and locate derelict parents and other fugitives by themselves. ``I have gotten hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from women throughout the country at their wits' end,'' the self-published author says, ``because they can't get caseworkers to locate the fathers of their children.''
Nationwide, shifty parents each year fail to make court-ordered child-support payments totaling $34 billion, or 81 percent of the money owed to children, according to a study by the Urban Institute. Only 4.1 million out of 23 million children in the US receive part or all of the support payments they are entitled to, according to estimates by the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES).
The problem betrays the mediocre performance of programs launched in the 1970s by state agencies to enforce the legal obligation of parents to provide financial support for their children.
The failure of parents to make good on their financial duties is ``the largest single contributing factor to poverty among children,'' says Geraldine Jensen, president of ACES, a nonprofit organization based in Toledo, Ohio. County and local offices have barely kept up with the huge increase in the number of child support cases between 1983 (1.7 million) and 1992 (6.4 million), according to the Children's Defense Fund.
Many offices lack the manpower and resources for finding derelict parents and compelling money from them, child advocates say.
``Government does a very, very poor job of finding people,'' says Farrell, a Detroit News reporter from West Bloomfield, Mich. But even when the state has located a negligent parent and brought her/him to court, it often lacks the wherewithal to ensure children quickly receive the money they deserve, social workers say.
For example, in Georgia little more than 350 judges must handle instances of negligence among 400,000 child-support cases, as well as other cases across the state.
``No matter how good you were and how much you tracked them [the delinquent parents] down, you still don't have a chance when there are only that many judges,'' says Ms. Jensen at ACES. In many places, negligent parents need only move to the next county or state in order to evade officials concerned with child support payments.
More than 30 proposed laws before Congress would back up the courts with nationwide administrative tools enforcing child-support payments.
The most far-reaching bills, including a proposal in President Clinton's welfare reform plan, would require each state to log, by computer, details about parents obligated to provide child support.
State officials would compare names of derelict parents with the names on a new nationwide computer list of workers compiled from tax withholding forms submitted by new employees. Should officials find a match in the two data banks, the government would deduct child-support payments from the worker's wages.
Until the government launches such a sweeping automatic system nationwide, single parents desperate to secure payments for their children can themselves track down fugitive mothers and fathers and bring them to justice.
In ``Find Them Fast!,'' Farrell tells a reader how to use shreds of information and public records to pinpoint a missing person. The most sure-fire lead is a Social Security number, with which an information broker can often immediately call up a person's current address by tapping public computer records.
But Farrell also describes ways to exploit peculiar clues. A chapter entitled ``Using Graveyards to Find the Living'' describes how information kept by the Social Security Administration on deceased taxpayers can help locate a deceased person's relatives.
Farrell often turns up the unexpected. One father in Detroit moved away owing a child born out of wedlock some $10,000. Using the man's Social Security number, Farrell quickly helped the child's mother find him. Police arrested the derelict father and jailed him on a contempt of court charge for failing to make his payments.
Farrell phoned the man for a feature story, expecting to hear an earful of oaths.
``He thanked me,'' Farrell said. The man was not enraged by his discovery; he was apparently fleeing from himself.
``He said he felt embarrassed and chagrined that he hadn't been living up to his responsibilities and he promised to do better,'' according to Farrell.
``It was a kind of confession for him,'' he added.
Buyers of ``Find Them Fast!'' also include lawyers and landlords. During the 50th anniversary this month of the D-Day landing, many veterans searching for their wartime companions bought Farrell's self-published book.