- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000

When Congress reformed welfare in 1996, state child-support officials were told they could start yanking the driver's, professional and sporting licenses of deadbeat parents.

Four years later, a state-by-state review by The Washington Times shows that licenses have become a major money magnet:

• More than 300,000 parents in 42 states have had their driver's licenses suspended for nonpayment of child support. The parents paid at least $300 million to get their licenses back, with some of the biggest sums coming from parents in Maryland and Virginia.

• Hundreds of parents in at least 26 states, including four nurses in South Carolina, a beautician in Mississippi and 35 worm-diggers in Maine, have had their professional licenses clipped until they paid up. Ohio said it got $635,000 from 114 parents who couldn't afford to lose their work permits.

Results like these have made license revocation the new best friend of child-support officials.

"My staff loves driver's license sanctions. It gets to people," said Nancy Thoma, chief of the Iowa Bureau of Collections, which has suspended 772 parents' driver's licenses to date.

Still, the Great License Roundup isn't happening in every state or in every venue Congress envisioned.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have little or nothing to report about license revocation.

The District doesn't revoke any licenses, said an official with the city's Corporation Counsel.

Wisconsin hasn't taken any licenses either but will in the fall when its computers come on line, said a state spokeswoman.

In six states where license revocation is languishing, only judges can take licenses, and they aren't inclined to do so, say child-support officials, some with great frustration in their voices.

Meanwhile, there's one kind of license that is ubiquitous but untouchable by most child-support agencies: fishing licenses.

Less than a dozen states troll for deadbeats, The Times' survey found. The problem is computers, child-support directors say.

Like most states, "we issue licenses from a cigar box in the back of the bait shop," explained Nathaniel L. Young Jr., director of child support in Virginia, one of 39 states that doesn't squeeze the fishermen.

Without expensive computers to match anglers and obligors, he added, "there's virtually no way to track that license."

Licenses as leverage

The 1996 welfare law made license revocation the law of the land for two main reasons.

One, it gave child-support agencies more leverage in their quest for collections. Secondly, the constant threat of revocation was envisioned as a way to ensure steady child-support payments. This money, Congress reasoned, is going to be needed by families that use up their five years of welfare benefits.

According to the latest data from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), 19 million families are involved in government child-support programs. Half of these families are on welfare.

In 1997, child-support agencies collected a record $13.4 billion on behalf of custodial parents and children. However, this money wasn't even a quarter of the $62.2 billion that the government estimates was owed that year.

Wage withholding is the most popular way of obtaining child support 56 percent of 1997 collections were deducted from parents' paychecks, OCSE data said.

But license revocation has emerged as an effective tool to reach parents who are self-employed or otherwise unreachable through wage withholding, child-support directors said.

Driving for dollars

From coast to coast, the favorite license to lift is the driver's license.

Florida, which has a "Pay Up or Walk" campaign, has taken 50,000 licenses over the past two years, said Dave Bruns, spokesman for Florida Department of Revenue.

"It's a magic wand," especially for truck drivers, because "it produces results when other tools won't," he said.

In 1997, Hawaii did a similar "pay or walk" campaign, said Bob Norton of the Hawaii Child Support Enforcement Agency.

In December, the month before the first licenses were to be pulled, "we had our largest increase in arrearage payments in history," he said gleefully. "So it does work."

Even sparsely populated Idaho has suspended more than 2,500 driver's licenses.

"People come scrambling in to pay," said Bill Walker, a spokesman for Idaho's child-support office.

Meanwhile, in highly populated New York, "hundreds of thousands" of parents have received warning letters and "at any given time, 60,000 driver's-license suspensions are in effect," said Robert Doar, director of New York's child-support agency.

Mr. Doar added that New York's streamlined, agency-run license-suspension process is "enormously effective" and contributed "a good portion" toward the state's $1 billion in collections since 1995.

Deadbeats in Maryland and Virginia are also at considerable risk for loss of their driver's licenses.

Since 1996, Maryland state officials have threatened to take 257,740 driver's licenses and suspended 73,472 of them. These efforts have brought in nearly $153 million in collections and payment plans, said Teresa Kaiser, head of the Maryland Child Support Enforcement Administration.

Virginia has taken fewer licenses 2,824 since 1995 but the threat of taking them, plus the state's highly publicized "booting" program, which disables cars owned by deadbeats, has brought in more than $65 million, said Mr. Young, Virginia's director.

Revoking other kinds of work-related licenses has proved effective as well.

For instance, no-nonsense Maine has pulled the licenses of 486 professionals, including two lawyers, three auto dealers, three insurance agents, three veterinarians and 35 worm-diggers.

In North Carolina, 600 deadbeat professionals have received a letter saying "you've got 20 days to respond to this issue and prove to us that you have eliminated this problem, or your license is revoked," said Barry Miller, director of the North Carolina Child Support Enforcement Program.

"Bam," he said. "We got in excess of $500,000 in payments … that's about $800 a pop."

South Carolina, which has already nabbed the licenses of 12 barbers, one teacher, four registered nurses and three Realtors, "takes away all kinds of licenses including manufactured housing, which is a very large industry in this state," said Marilyn Mathews, a spokeswoman for the state.

"There is only one profession in the state whose license we don't revoke and that is attorneys. Isn't that interesting?" she said.

Locally, Virginia currently takes professional licenses, while Maryland is one of five states that is phasing in this process this year.

However, these and 38 other states are devoting far less energy to the nation's 42 million sports fishermen and 15 million hunters, despite the congressional mandate to take their licenses.

Fishing for deadbeats

According to The Times' review, 10 states have taken a total of 630 fishing licenses since 1996. An 11th state, New Mexico, has 771 licenses under review.

Arkansas hasn't taken any fishing licenses yet, but has 3,800 in its newly automated license-revocation pipeline, said Dan McDonald, head of Arkansas' child-support agency.

Such meager tallies of fishing-license revocations don't surprise parents like Jennie Marshall-Hoenack of Anchorage, Alaska.

Mrs. Marshall-Hoenack's former husband is "an avid sports fisherman," but Alaska officials never pulled his license, she told The Times. "As of March 1, he owed $65,609 in child support," she added.

Lack of automation prevents recreational-license revocation, child-support officials in half the states told The Times.

A few states have gamely tried to organize the paperwork anyway.

For instance, in Delaware, where nearly 25,000 fishing licenses are kept on card files, "our staff went down and alphabetized all of them by hand," said Charles Hayward, deputy director of Delaware's child-support agency.

The plan is to start matching anglers and obligors in July, he said.

"But it's not been an easy process. Thank God, we're not a New York we'd never get it done."

Mr. Doar of New York, where more than 1 million fishing licenses were sold in 1998, seconds that sentiment.

Without computers, he and a chorus of other child-support officials said, it's just not cost-effective.

"Hunting and fishing license revocation was required by Congress so of course we require it as well," said Dan Richard, director of Pennsylvania's child-support agency.

"But we have not found that it actually produces dollars. It revokes the license, and that's the end of the trail," he said, adding that he knew of one hunting-license revocation.

Still, some child-support promoters say state agencies should not give up on recreational licenses.

"It's another tool. You never know what tool will work with what individual. You need different tools for different people," said Nora O'Brien, who works with the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES) in California.

"The benefit of suspending a fishing license is that it should have the intended effect of getting a non-custodial parent's attention and motivating payment, but it doesn't hurt their ability to work," said Kevin Aquirre, director of child-support in Oregon, a state that is just starting to take recreational licenses.

Child-support officials don't actually want to take the licenses, Mr. Aquirre said, echoing dozens of other directors.

"The whole idea is to motivate and compel payment."

Fishing "is a huge passion" and taking the licenses would be effective, insists Debbie Kline, an ACES leader in Ohio.

"Bass fishermen live, breathe, eat and sleep fishing," she said, noting that her ex-husband even fished in blizzards.

S. Ray Weaver, Oklahoma's top child-support official, agrees that his people "really get a reaction here" when they revoke lifetime fishing and hunting licenses.

"People feel they are entitled to that [license] even if they aren't paying their child support," he said. "When we take it, they feel like we've destroyed their world."

Maine child-support director Stephen Hussey is another satisfied supporter of recreational-license revocation.

Maine recently went after 225 moose hunters for child support and all but three paid up, he said. "One guy came in with a check for over $7,000 and said 'I've been waiting all my life for this moose permit. Here's your check.' "

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