- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

BALTIMORE — Ray was a teen-age father when he went to jail on a felony charge for 17 years. By the time he was released two years ago, he owed the state of Maryland $14,000 in child support to defray the costs of welfare for his children and their mothers.
Today, Ray, which is not his real name, is part of a pilot program started by Maryland child-support officials to "leverage" his $14,000 debt.
Under the program, Ray had to graduate from a community-based program that teaches job readiness or responsible fatherhood, get a job and make regular child-support payments for six months.
In return, the state erased 25 percent of Rays debt.
If Ray does this three more times, "all his state debt could be gone," said Teresa Kaiser, Marylands child-support enforcement director.
The debt-leveraging program makes sense, said several people associated with it.
If someone like Ray eliminates his debt, he will have paid child support for at least two years, said Sister Gwynette Proctor, who works with Ray at the Christopher Place Employment Academy.
This would be a remarkable personal achievement, especially by a father who had been in the "uncollectable" child-support category.
Also, the child support Ray is paying is substantial — payments by men in the program range from $34 a week to $150 a week, said DeAndre Wiggins, the debt-leveraging counselor at the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development (CFWD).
"I look at this program as spinning straw into gold," said Ms. Kaiser, who came aboard as Marylands child-support director two years ago after nearly a decade of child support leadership in other states.
The Baltimore debt-leveraging program, which will be a year old in July, is being closely watched by state officials and advocates.
Child-support debt is supposed to be unforgivable. Under a federal law championed by former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, judges are forbidden from retroactively reducing or forgiving child-support arrears.
While this law was intended to stop judges from unilaterally wiping out debt based on parents sob stories, it also had the unintended consequence of creating a debt meter that couldnt be stopped. This applies even to parents who are hospitalized for months, given long prison sentences or taken hostage in a foreign country.
There is little support for repealing the Bradley amendment, but there is widespread support for finding ways to help parents — mostly fathers — become responsible and support their children.
Groups that worked with poor fathers, however, quickly realized that child-support arrears were a major obstacle.
"The groups said, 'We cant get these guys to walk in the door because as soon as they do, they owe $30,000 [in child support] and they know they cant pay for it," said Paula Roberts, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), who in May issued a report on debt-leveraging innovations around the country.
The 1996 welfare-reform law helped spur interest in change, said Ms. Kaiser, who added that plans are under way to expand the debt-leveraging program to Prince Georges County.
"Under welfare reform, we were giving moms two years to get their lives together," she said. But there was no such deal with the dads, even though they came from the same troubled neighborhoods and had the same low educations and the same haphazard work history as the moms.
Still, carving out a child-support exception for poor parents is a challenge, said Ms. Kaiser and other child-support leaders.
Child support is revenue for a state, and "most states are very concerned about having a clear procedure on any kind of debt settlement," said Marilyn Ray Smith, a top official with Massachusetts child-support agency, which is working on its own "debt-management" program.
A big public policy issue is distinguishing between people who can pay but dont and those who really cant pay, Mrs. Smith said.
"You dont want to give much latitude" to the first group, she said. But if the same tactics are used with the second group, "you run the risk of driving them underground, away from good jobs and their children."
Then there are the parents "who do pay, on time and in full," and who want to see other people held accountable in the same way, she said.
"Its going to take a lot of sorting, on an individual case basis, to figure out what category somebody is in … And so states say, 'Well, we have to be very careful" about easing anybodys debt, she said.
In Maryland, Ms. Kaiser and her colleagues set narrow parameters for the pilot program: Only parents with debts owed to the state can apply; debts owed to custodial parents must be paid in full.
The program was open only to parents who had child-support orders from Baltimore city and who graduated from one of five local job-readiness and responsible-fatherhood programs.
The number of parents in the debt-leveraging program is small: A full tally wasnt immediately available, but CFWD, one of the larger programs, has 18 fathers enrolled, and Sister Gwynette said she has six fathers in the program and six more ready to start.
The fathers in the community programs almost always have less than a high school education, a criminal background and histories of mental or physical illness and/or substance abuse, so graduation itself is an accomplishment, Ms. Kaiser said.
Still, without a debt-leveraging program, "a lot of guys would go to their graves with arrearages," said James Smith, a case manager at CFWD.
"Its having a major impact," said Sister Gwynette, who recalled how one 39-year-old man who owed the state $55,000 recently got his court-certified letter that said that 25 percent of his debt had been erased.
"The day that [letter] came in, his feet werent touching the ground," she said. "And he knows that if he stays with the program, in another six months, another 25 percent will come off. So he can see a way clear, plus hes caring for his children."
Custodial mothers are also pleased with the program.
"Theyre very happy. This is the first time theyve seen their mate meeting obligations regularly," Sister Gwynette said.
The Association for Children for Enforcement of Support has been urging states to find ways to offer amnesty for some of the debts owed by noncustodial parents, said ACES President Geraldine Jensen.
"The states were sort of piling on," billing unwed or absent fathers for the Medicaid-paid costs of their childrens births, paternity tests and interest on the debt, she said. The result was that "many young fathers ended up with $10,000 in debt" and "a lot of them would just run and go underground," she said. That meant many families didnt get any child support.
ACES early support for debt-leveraging was crucial because it "relieved others of the burden of worrying about what the mothers would say," said Ms. Roberts of CLASP, who said officials in Minnesota, Colorado and California were actively pursuing similar policies.

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