Curious billboards have popped up around Baltimore recently: "Hiring again? Share the good news."
The nine billboards — posted in prominent locations such as the intersection of Falls Road and West Cold Spring Lane— do not give any clues as to their real agenda. The ads simply direct employers to a website, which explains that to improve child support collections a state law requires them to report new workers within 20 days of their hiring or face a fine.
The giant displays are among the aggressive tactics the state Department of Human Resources is deploying after a blistering audit last year found that the agency failed to use all available resources to collect the payments, most often on behalf of mothers. The General Assembly withheld $100,000 in funding until the agency documents improvement.
Human Resources Secretary Theodore Dallas said the heightened efforts are paying off. The state has collected $20.7 million more in child support so far this fiscal year than during the same period the previous year, a 4.8 percent increase. Collections are up by about 5 percent, or $3.2 million, in Baltimore.
"We know we have a way to go to get there, but the changes we've got this year, that's a good first step," Dallas said. "Ultimately, for us, our goal is to [provide] services that would be good enough for our own families."
The state is on track to collect a record amount in child support, Dallas said. The state typically gets involved to enforce payment in child support cases where parents have sought court intervention.
Joseph I. DiPrimio, who was hired in December to head the agency's Child Support Enforcement Administration, said its best method for collecting the payments is drawing money directly from paychecks.
But roughly 5,000 businesses do not comply with the 20-day reporting law, he said. Employers are given a written warning for the first violation and are subject to a fine for each subsequent month they fail to report the employee. The fine is $20 per employee, or $500 if the state can prove a conspiracy to hide the information.
The billboards were posted this month to make businesses aware of the law, which was enacted in the 1990s, DiPrimio said. August is Child Support Awareness month. The contractor that manages Baltimore's collections has posted the signs for the past several years, he said.
So far this federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the state has collected $11.1 million more in wage garnishments than in the same period last year, according to an agency spokesman. The state is also drawing child support from an additional 67,000 paychecks.
Connie Taylor, who lives in Annapolis, said she's been fighting with the Department of Human Resources for the better part of 21 years to collect child support from the father of her son and daughter. Taylor said recently she's felt a major change in the agency's customer service and performance.
"I don't feel like I am just a number," Taylor said. "I was taken care of promptly, directly. I have dealt with them for many a year. You're crying out for help, and it was like it didn't matter to them."
Taylor, a cosmetologist, said the agency did a poor job of tracking her children's father's employment. She said she'd track down information, give it to the agency, and even then it wouldn't follow through. Taylor said she credits a change in agency leadership for the improvement.
In the past, the state did not effectively use wage withholdings, occupation license suspensions and bank account seizures to collect child support, according to the critical audit released last September. The audit, performed by the Office of Legislative Audits, showed that the state collected $530 million in child support in fiscal year 2010, which left $1.72 billion unpaid.
DiPrimio said the $1.72 billion includes all of the money historically owed, including money that other states were responsible for collecting. DiPrimio said that figure does not factor in the age of the debt or whether those who owe it are in prison or dead.
This year, the state distributed 66 percent of the $530 million in child support that was due, or $350 million, as of the end of July. The state collected the money on behalf of nearly 200,000 families.
To improve its performance, the agency is better using enforcement tools, such as seizing money directly from a delinquent parent's bank account if the balance reaches $500 and a payment has not been made for more than 60 days, according to DiPrimio. Previously, the state had seized money from bank accounts only if the delinquent parent's balance was more than $2,500.
The Department of Human Resources is also developing better tools to analyze the parents who aren't paying their child support, DiPrimio and. He wants to enhance the agency's demographic data so officials can measure the number of people paying by ZIP code and compare that to an area's unemployment rate, for example. Eventually, he wants to offer that analysis online.
"This year, along with the goals the secretary has set, everybody has been more assertive and aggressive," DiPrimio said.
Daniel L. Hatcher, an associate law professor at the University of Baltimore, said the aggressive measures to collect child support aren't always constructive and urged the state to use discretion when going after the money.
For instance, Hatcher said, when the state suspends a worker's professional license, such as that of a commercial fisherman or cabdriver, the delinquent parent can lose the ability to pay.
Hatcher also noted that of the roughly $105 billion in unpaid child support across the country, about half is owed to the government, not families. The government goes after money from delinquent parents to repay the cost of social services that children receive, such as welfare cash benefits or Medicaid, Hatcher said.
In Maryland, $441.5 million of the $454 million in child support collected between October 2011 and late July is due to families. The rest, about $12.5 million, is owed to the government, an agency spokesman said.
Kevin Roy, an associate professor of family science at the University of Maryland, said the state's efforts would be more effective if officials used different approaches for parents who cannot pay child support and for those who can pay and do not.
Often, those who can pay were married and living with the family at one point and have jobs, Roy said. Those in the other group often have low incomes and might never have raised their children. Many feel they are seen as "dollar signs," not people, and their incentive to pay child support is lessened when the child support is paid to the government, not the family.
"The incentive to pay is really not there, other than the incentive to pay to keep you out of jail," Roy said.