Perseverance is key in child-support gains; More tools available to track down cases


When a former Howard County resident received a $38,000 child-support check last month, she couldn't believe it.

"I open up this check. I pull it out. It's just incredible," she said, adding that she gave up on that debt years ago and thought the Howard County Social Services Department had, too. "This is my children's college education," she said.

Debra, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her family's privacy, is not alone these days. Child-support workers in Howard County have been making big lump-sum scores lately on behalf of the children they represent -- including $16,000 from a man denied a Maryland driver's license until he paid.

Using Financial Institution Data Matching, a program linking the names of child-support debtors to bank records, workers are trying to claim a $10,000 certificate of deposit from a father who owes $9,000 to his two children.

"It opens up a whole new world for us," said Elizabeth Tewey, assistant director for child support in the Howard social services department. Next year, social workers say they will be going after businessmen whose professional licenses are subject to renewal.

The payments have helped boost the county's overall collections to $11 million last fiscal year -- a 13 percent increase.

"I think he realized we weren't letting it go. It was very satisfying," said Sharon L. Lewis, the social worker who handled Debra's case.

Statewide, child-support collections have grown 40 percent in the past five years, with $374 million collected in the year ending June 30. Much of that growth is attributed to the suspension of drivers' licenses for those owing child support -- more than $103 million during the program's three-year existence.

Howard County has more than 3,500 court-ordered child-support cases, Tewey said, and two-thirds of those parents pay regularly. In a given month, the county receives about 73 percent of what is owed, she said.

"We're getting people who we have not been able to get to before. It's a tough little group," Tewey said.

The $38,000 payment came from a father working overseas who discovered the U.S. State Department wouldn't renew his passport until he made arrangements to pay. Apparently tired of being pursued, he called and told a child-support worker he would pay the entire amount.

"We have more tools now. I think we are doing better," Tewey said.

Most parents pay their child support regularly because they want to, Tewey said. In Howard, only about 900 are chronically late or don't pay at all, requiring constant court dates and phone calls.

For Debra, it's been a long road.

Ten years ago, after her divorce, she lost her house and car, was forced into bankruptcy and had to move with her baby daughter to her grandparents' home.

"I was working, but I made too much to qualify for assistance and not enough to make ends meet. It was terrible because financially it ruined me, and you have to live with that," she said.

She has since remarried, and although she started receiving child support again recently, she never expected to see those years of lost payments.

"Part of me is very angry that he had the money to take care of this for however long and just chose not to," she said. "I'm glad they finally caught up with him."

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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