Child Support Enforcement in Baltimore: 'A Nightmare'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like more than one hundred thousand Baltimore parents, Dawn Simmons is waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Dawn Simmons is waiting for her due, for simple justice. She's waiting for a much-needed financial cushion, a hand-hold to secure herself and her baby out of reach from the waiting jaws of poverty and welfare dependence.

Dawn Simmons is waiting for child support.

Nine hundred and twenty days have passed since she first crossed the threshold at the Eutaw Street headquarters of the Baltimore City Office of Child Support Enforcement. Ms. Simmons was just three months pregnant on that first visit -- anxious to make sure she'd have help with the bills once her baby arrived.

Wishful thinking.

Despite applying six months early, despite telling authorities the name of her baby's father, plus his Social Security number and his employer, Ms. Simmons is still waiting for her first child support check. Her boy Aaron will celebrate his second birthday Dec. 21.

Ms. Simmons' story is anything but unusual. She is one of 134,532 Baltimore parents on the active case load last year of the city's beleaguered child support office. Of these, only 20,663 (15 percent) received even a single payment. The rest, like Ms. Simmons, went without.

Child support enforcement is "a nightmare," says Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman. "A mud hole" admits Louis Curry, the city's support enforcement director. "Outrageous" is the preferred term of Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, Judge Friedman's colleague on the Circuit Court bench.

Baltimore's child support enforcement system remains anemic even after a wave of federal and state child support reforms in the past decade, even after the state assumed control of the city enforcement program in 1990 and appointed a new director.

For working mothers like Ms. Simmons, and for tens of thousands of city welfare mothers unable to achieve self-sufficiency on their own, nonsupport remains the rule. Waiting is still the order of the day.

Nonsupport isn't unique to Baltimore, of course. With more than a million children born out of wedlock each year and a divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, child support has become vital to millions of children across America.

Of course, some non-custodial parents cannot pay; they are unemployed or in jail. No one is sure what percentage of non-paying parents can't pay and what percentage just won't pay. But experts and advocates agree that an efficient collection system can vastly improve the number of dollars paid out in child support.

"Deadbeat dads" achieved national notoriety during the 1992 presidential campaign -- and for good reason. According to the Census Bureau, only half of all parents potentially eligible for child support nationwide had orders entitling them to support in 1989. And only half of these received the full amount due. This lack of support is a major reason why a whopping 56 percent of children in female-headed families nationwide live below the poverty line.

But experts say Baltimore's malady is among the worst they've seen. The Baltimore child support office has primary responsibility for collecting support on behalf of 75,130 welfare parents plus another 59,402 non-welfare parents not wealthy enough to afford a private attorney.

According to a study completed by the Pacific Consulting Group in 1990, the 326-person agency establishes a support order for ++ only 42 percent of the parents who walk through its doors seeking one. And the study found that for parents lucky enough to get orders, the agency collects just 32 percent of the dollars owed.

Combining these two statistics, the study estimated that the city office brings in just 13 cents of every child support dollar that ought to be paid -- a figure the study called "far below the performance levels achieved in the rest of the nation" and "even below those of most other large cities."

And the situation has only deteriorated since 1990. Despite an increased caseload, Baltimore's office established fewer paternities and fewer support orders in the fiscal year ended June 30 than it did three years before. The city's support collections increased slightly over this period, but at a slower rate than any of Maryland's other 23 jurisdictions.

Overall, the city office collected just $49 million of the $346 million owed its clients in 1992. That was bad news for taxpayers, who footed a massive welfare bill while the city brought in just $21 million of the $199 million owed to welfare recipients.

Better enforcement would have enabled many one-parent families to escape welfare, and -- since the state retains all but the first $50 collected each month for families that remain dependent -- it could have saved taxpayers millions. Weak enforcement was terrible news too for working parents and their children. Those who relied on the city enforcement office received just $28 million of the $147 million due them.

"That's a total breakdown of responsibility at the bureau of support enforcement, at the Sheriff's Department, at the state's attorney and at the courts," said Judge Johnson of the Circuit Court. "We've all fallen down on the job, and it's outrageous."

Amen, say the women who fill the waiting room at child support headquarters on Eutaw Street. These women tell one horror story after another -- tales of overwhelmed, mistake-prone bureaucrats moving at glacial pace while trapped within a mind-numbing legal cobweb.

Jackie Anderson filed for an increase in her support in September 1992. She didn't hear a word until Aug. 16, 11 months later. "They just put it my file and put my file away," Ms. Anderson said.

When she finally did receive a letter from the child support office -- after a flurry of phone calls -- it didn't include all the necessary forms. So she headed down to Eutaw Street in person.

This wasn't Ms. Anderson's first problem with child support authorities. It took her six months to get an order established in New Jersey when she first applied in 1985. Then, five years ago when her payments stopped coming, Ms. Anderson got so frustrated she hit the road.

"I was making complaints here and nothing was happening, so I went to New Jersey myself," she said. "They didn't have to talk to me, but they did."

For the past three or four years Ms. Anderson has been receiving payments regularly. But she feels the father of her two children, a police officer, should provide more than $50 per week.

According to Maryland's formula for setting support awards, Ms. Anderson is probably correct. But after a year's effort, she's still waiting.

Janice Jones has spent more than six months trying to win support for her new baby, Jazmin. She first filed an application at the child support office on Feb. 17. Then, after more than a month's wait, she was summoned to the city courthouse to fill out a second set of papers, which were then signed by a notary.

"Why can't they just have a notary here?" she asked.

On May 26 Ms. Jones had to appear again at the courthouse, this time for a hearing with Jazmin's father, Sidney Pittman. Fortunately, Mr. Pittman showed. Otherwise the hearing would have been rescheduled and Ms. Jones would have had to wait another month or two and then take yet another day off work.

At the hearing, Mr. Pittman initially denied paternity and demanded a blood test. The positive result didn't come back until July, and it wasn't until Aug. 3 that Mr. Pittman and Ms. Jones returned to the courthouse and finally signed a $115-per-week support order.

That wasn't the end of Ms. Jones' wait. Ms. Jones received her first check Oct. 6, seven and half months after she applied.

Should Mr. Pittman change jobs in the future, Ms. Jones will find herself playing another interminable waiting game. The city office employs fewer than 90 agents to en- force 123,000 active ** support orders, so Ms. Jones' first job will be capture the attention of an overwhelmed enforcement agent.

Even if she succeeds, Ms. Jones could wait months as authorities try to locate Mr. Pittman, identify his employer, and enter a new wage lien. Should Mr. Pittman become self-employed, Ms. Jones will likely wait years before enforcement agents seize his tax refunds or bring him to court. And if Mr. Pittman actively avoids the enforcement system or -- heaven forbid -- moves to another state, Ms. Jones may never see payment.

"People wait because we just can't handle the cases," said city enforcement director, Louis Curry. The city's child support caseload has nearly doubled since 1987 -- the result of an explosion in out-of-wedlock childbearing. Mr. Curry's enforcement staff hasn't kept pace with the onslaught, holding steady around 300 for the past several years.

"There was no way to keep up with the numbers," said Judge Friedman. "They let it get away from them."

Mr. Curry insists that his agency is "doing our best to whittle away at those cases where people have written two or three times and gotten no response."

He points to several steps taken to improve the situation since the state assumed control of the city enforcement program in 1990 and appointed him director.

Mr. Curry installed a computerized account information line. He began wiring support checks directly into parents' bank accounts, a change that speeds payments to parents and reduces postage and check processing costs for his agency. And he has reduced a pot of undistributed money that had piled up because of bad addresses and faulty accounting. Once more than $2 million, that fund is now less than $250,000.

And thanks to a law mandated by Congress and passed by the Maryland General Assembly, Mr. Curry's agency now deducts support from absent parents' paychecks on all new child support orders. In the past, the agency resorted to wage liens only after payers fell 30 days behind.

"To get out of this mud hole," Mr. Curry said, "we've got to go step by step."

Yet the list of reform steps not taken in Baltimore is eye-opening.

Mr. Curry's office does not provide child support clients the name of an individual agent to handle their cases. Instead, when troubled parents succeed in getting a live voice on the telephone -- often they raise only a recording -- they are bounced from one agent to the next. As a result, parents say, follow-up is often lacking. "You can call down here until you're blue in the face, and it won't do you any good," Janice Jones said.

Salaries and educational requirements for agency personnel -- set by the state's personnel department -- remain alarmingly low. Enforcement agents and first-line supervisors must hold only a high-school equivalency certificate, and salaries start at less than $17,000.Child support workers haven't seen a raise in more than three years.

Although many fathers dragged into court for nonsupport are jobless or indigent, the city child support office provides them no job training, counseling or placement services. The program in Prince George's County helped 133 fathers find jobs last year, and these dads subsequently paid $308,453 in support.

Baltimore's support enforcement efforts have also been held hostage to inaction at the state level. Maryland was the last state to pass a law requiring judges to use uniform guidelines -- rather than arbitrary discretion -- to set levels for child support orders. And it was among the last to require immediate wage withholding in all support cases handled by government agencies.

Until this year, Maryland law prohibited enforcement agents from reporting delinquent parents to credit agencies, a tool research has found to increase collections by 20 percent. Maryland child support workers still don't consult credit records in their efforts to locate absent parents. Rhode Island and Delaware use credit records to turn up addresses for many absent parents they're unable to locate using other methods.

Likewise, state legislators only this year approved a program to establish paternity for out-of-wedlock babies at birth. Research finds that as many as 80 percent of unmarried fathers are present for the birth of their children, and many drift away soon after.

In-hospital paternity programs in Virginia and the state of Washington establish paternity for about a third of out-of-wedlock babies, greatly easing the process of obtaining support orders for these children. The program is still in the planning stages and may not reach Baltimore maternity wards until the end of 1994.

Rather than carrying out these reforms, Louis Curry has spent much of the last three years worrying about office space and waiting for a new computer system.

The child support agency long ago outgrew its 29,000 feet of office space, Mr. Curry said. Cramped quarters have left Mr. Curry unable to install an on-site testing lab to draw blood immediately should a man named as a father deny paternity. These easy-to-administer paternity tests can now determine parentage with 99 percent accuracy. Yet weeks or months are often wasted in Baltimore between the paternity hearing and the test, and many fathers use this needless delay to evade the enforcement system.

Lack of space also left Mr. Curry unable to hire 40 of the 85 temporary workers authorized by the General Assembly as an emergency measure last year. "I had money for it but I just couldn't hire them. I didn't have the space," he said.

Recently the state purchased a building with 58,000 feet of space for the enforcement office, but no date has been set for the move. In addition to a blood test lab, the new building will ultimately house a data management system that will handle many time-consuming tasks now performed manually by enforcement workers. The system, under development since the mid-1980s, will contain a data base of all child support cases statewide, and it will enable enforcement agents to tie into motor vehicle, employment and other records.

The system, undergoing tests in Cecil, Harford and Kent Counties, will "revolutionize" the enforcement effort statewide, state child support director Meg Sollenberger insists.

But Dennis Corriveau, a child support consultant who managed the 1990 review of Baltimore's enforcement program, warned that the network will not necessarily yield significant improvements. Automation could make a big difference, Mr. Corriveau said, but "you've got to get people trained on it quickly, and then you've got to use the time that's freed up wisely."

Mr. Curry agreed. "We're always going to be behind the 8-ball," he lamented. Automation is "going to be a big tool to help us. But I don't want people to think that we are going to be saved by a big computer. It's still going to take a person being able to interact with that computer to serve the customer."

For now, Mr. Curry continues to make do with the resources he has. And Dawn Simmons, along with thousands like her, continues to go without support. Without support, Ms. Simmons provides subsistence for Aaron and herself as a cashier at the National Aquarium. After taxes, her biweekly paycheck comes to just $378. From that, $130 disappears every two weeks for Aaron's day care. The monthly rent for her three-room Hilton Road apartment takes an additional $300. That doesn't leave much for fun -- or food.

"I make sure [Aaron] gets what he needs," Simmons said. "I've cut myself short a lot of times.

"It's a struggle," she said, "a real struggle."

Ms. Simmons does not go without support because Aaron Sims, the man she's identified as her boy's father, is hard to locate. Within minutes, the Navy's personnel bureau named Mr. Sims' unit in Norfolk, and the base's public affairs office provided a phone number for him almost immediately. Reached by telephone, Mr. Sims refused to discuss Ms. Simmons with reporters or to say whether he is the baby's father. To date, no one in the enforcement system has made him talk either.

Neither Virginia nor Maryland child support agencies will discuss individual cases, and Ms. Simmons has not heard whether Mr. Sims has been interviewed, given a blood test or summoned to a hearing.

"I keep calling and calling and calling but nothing's been done yet," Ms. Simmons said. "They tell you the same thing over and over. 'We're backed up and we're sorry.'

"It's just a bunch of excuses."

Dick Mendel is a free-lance writer.

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