More like detectives than social workers, the agents who track down delinquent parents for child support payments in the county sometimes find their cases bordering on the sensational.

By persevering last year despite several dead ends, they found one absent father living under a different name and Social Security number.

It turned out he was in the federal Victim-Witness ProtectionProgram -- a cover even the Mafia is not supposed to be able to break.

"That's the kind of thing they do every day," Supervisor Jamie Wehler said of her Child Support Enforcement Unit at the Carroll Department of Social Services.

Other cases have made national news -- a CIA agent who ultimately was convicted of embezzlement so that he could pay the child support Wehler's staff was pushing for, and a transsexual who fell $3,800 in arrears in support payments for the children she fathered when she was a man.

The DSS also goes after mothers. One hundred and sixteen women in Carroll County are paying child support through the DSS to either the father, foster parents or relatives caring for their child.

Most of the DSS' clients are mothers who could not afford to hire a lawyer for $160 an hour to track down the father and handle the court work, Wehler said. Her staff does it for a one-time $20 fee.

The office was set up to help welfare applicants obtain support they were owed and reduce the need for public assistance. But anti-discrimination laws require the unit to help anyone enforce a court-ordered payment agreement.

It took 10 years for Diane, a 33-year-old mother of two, to get a child support check fromher former husband last March. He had to pay a minimum of $910 in back payments to get out of jail.

But he still isn't paying his $35 a week regularly, said Diane, who has moved to Baltimore and asked that her real name not be used.

She is one of 3,200 parents who relyon Carroll DSS to get child support from an absent parent. Half of those parents are on welfare, but Diane is not. She makes $366 a week at a warehouse job.

"Here you are, supporting the children on yourown, and their father is out there doing nothing to support them," Diane said.

She said DSS already has done a great deal just by finding her ex-husband, who had moved out of state, been in jail several times, and cut off communication with his family.

"I was shocked,"she said when DSS found him. "I had even gotten a letter from them saying it was doubtful they would find him."

Wehler is proud of therecord $3 million in payments her office has collected this year. And, she said, that represents $5.75 collected for every dollar spent on the enforcement unit. But that is less than half of what those parents should be paying, she said.

The rest of the money is held up for a variety of reasons: The parent can't be found, the case hasn't gone to court yet, the person has presented reasons that he or she can't pay.

"There is no prevalent reason," Wehler said. "We have about a 47 percent pay rate, which is nowhere near where we would like itto be, believe me. But the state average is 32 percent."

Carroll County has as good a rate as it does because of her staff, Wehler said.

"These are people who file in court, write to absent parents, use threats," she said, such as attaching wages or jail.

"It's a little bit cop, a little bit paralegal, a little bit social worker," Wehler said of her agents. "It's very broad, and it takes a very special kind of person to do the work."

The agents use a variety of computer searches, such as through employment and motor vehicle departments. For out-of-state parents, they rely on a federal parent-locater service.

Sometimes, Wehler said, the agent is lucky to get a parent's full name, especially if the child was conceived in a one-night liaison.

Once Wehler's staff finds an address for an absent parent, they send it on to Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman's office, which prosecutes the parents. For fathers who deny paternity, the office arranges for blood tests.

And more help is on the way. Hickman announced Thursday that the Sheriff's Department will use new state money to create a position to specialize in serving papers to delinquent parents.

Hickman said the state is paying 66 percent of thecost for the new position, which begins Aug. 1.

Wehler said the new deputy, who will wear plain clothes, drive an unmarked car and work more flexible hours than the current deputies, will be more effective at catching parents by surprise to serve them papers.

The cutline with Sunday's Page 2 story about child support payments should have identified the photograph as Jill Ott, a Department of Social Services child support enforcement agent.
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