JAMES WILSON JR. had been paying child support for his two daughters. But when he neglected to tell Maryland officials that he'd changed addresses and taken a new job, the automatic deductions from his paycheck stopped - and he was arrested.
The sheriffs ``handcuffed me and carried me away,'' says the Baltimore resident, insisting he had been making payments above what the court had ordered. ``I couldn't even get my jacket and coat.'' He spent 28 hours in jail, something he says he won't forget.
Like many states, Maryland has been cracking down on parents who don't pay court-ordered child support. Now the federal government is moving toward doing so too - up to a point.
This week, the House Ways and Means Committee endorsed setting up state and federal registries to track the paychecks and tax refunds of ``deadbeat parents'' who cross state lines, a policy considered effective in enforcing collections.
But the House panel rejected a more far-reaching proposal that would have required states to suspend the professional, trade, and drivers' licenses of those who owe money. That provision had been backed by President Clinton, who last week signed an executive order cracking down on federal workers who are behind on child support.
Behind all the interest in deadbeat parents is a glaring statistic: $34 billion. That is how much the federal government estimates is owed the nation's children, though others consider it too high. The debt forces many parents who don't get their payments onto welfare rolls. Thus, tougher enforcement has become a central focus of the GOP drive to reform welfare to reduce costs and increase responsibility.
``Children are the first victims,'' says Rep. Marge Roukema (R) of New Jersey, point-woman on the issue for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. ``But American taxpayers are the ultimate victims, when they have to pick up the welfare tab for deadbeat parents who evade their financial obligations.''
Though the House committee backed off on suspending licenses, some states are finding success using the tactic. After Maine sent out 17,000 notices in August 1993 to parents owing child support, informing them the state could revoke licenses, ``the phones rang off the hooks,'' says Corby Jackson, who heads up the state's child-support enforcement agency.
Critics warned that taking away a person's livelihood would do more harm than good. But the program's success ``completely destroyed'' that argument, contends Ms. Jackson. So far Maine has collected $13 million in child support and revoked 35 licenses.
Other states, though, aren't so enamored with the concept. The Maryland legislature balked at the idea several times. Opponents argued, as they did in Maine, that taking away peoples' professional licenses, and thus depriving them of a job and income, would do nothing to ensure a child-support check in the mail.
There were political dimensions, too. ``Not every legislator wants tougher child support,'' says Luther Starnes, secretary of human resources for Maryland. ``Many legislators are lawyers and some represent clients who are in arrears [behind in payment].''
And just figuring out how to revoke licenses can be difficult - even in an era of automation. When Virginia, for instance, tried to implement a law taking licenses away from delinquent parents, officials were confronted with 34 separate licensing agencies - many with different databases and incompatible software.
Paternity establishment key
One of the biggest obstacles to collecting child support is establishing legal paternity. Out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing: There are now more than 1 million a year, but only one-third of these children have the legal document that tells who the dad is.
Starting this year, all states must have programs that make it easier for fathers to voluntarily acknowledge paternity. Many fathers are present at the birth and are more likely to admit paternity at this time.
Since Virginia began its voluntary program in 1990, paternity establishment has quadrupled. ``We're closing the gap,'' says Mike Henry, director of Virginia's Child-Support Enforcement Division. ``This year the number of paternities established is just about the same as the number of new out-of-wedlock births.''
Although child-support enforcement is being touted as the solution that could cut welfare costs by as much as 25 percent, skeptics say there is a limit to how much money can be recouped. Some studies show that up to 56 percent of the fathers of children born to unmarried mothers are poor - and thus not likely to pay child support no matter how big the state's threat.
``Often the first time a father becomes aware of his responsibility is a year or more after the birth, when he receives a letter from court or finds an officer at his doorstep, informing him he is as much as $12,000 in arrears,'' says Ron Mincy of the New York-based Ford Foundation and a former member of the Clinton administration's task force on welfare reform.
Mr. Mincy's suggestion: Instead of focusing on making mothers self-sufficient, social policy should be geared to helping both parents be responsible for their child's well being - preferably as a family unit.
Still, there are plenty of parents who can pay but won't. Some withhold payment over custody or visitation disputes. Others complain that the court-ordered payments are too onerous, especially those who have remarried and are supporting another family. Still others complain that the custodial parent spends the child's support money in wasteful or self-indulgent ways.
But these arguments don't sit well with supporters of tougher enforcement like Representative Roukema. ``It's a disgrace in a nation that has so much rhetoric about family values that people are less likely to default on car payments than child support.''