- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

States are sitting on an unprecedented $635 million in child-support payments that have been collected but not paid to needy families, a child-support advocate told a House hearing yesterday.
"Thousands of families leaving the welfare rolls are not receiving child support collected by the state," Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, told a hearing before the House Government Reform subcommittee on government efficiency, financial management and intergovernmental relations.
State ineptitude in tracking the funds and the families is often at fault, said Ms. Jensen, citing federal data that show $634.8 million in unpaid child-support funds in 47 states. Data were not available from Arizona, Nevada or New Hampshire.
Locally, the District has failed to send out $1.7 million in child support funds, while Maryland and Virginia have a backlog of $10.7 million and $5 million, respectively, according to Ms. Jensens testimony.
In a meeting this week, state child-support directors said that as much as half of these undistributed funds was "explainable," Frank Fuentes, acting commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, told the hearing.
More than $1 billion in overdue child support is collected by capturing tax refunds, he said. However, if the parent who owes the support has remarried and files a tax return with his or her spouse, the spouse can file a claim to prevent some or all of the tax refund from being taken as child support.
That process alone can take six months, said Mr. Fuentes, who added that resolving this problem is "a top priority" of his agency.
The subject of yesterdays hearing — a child-support penalty bill introduced by Rep. Michael Bilirakis, Florida Republican — received a less enthusiastic response from witnesses.
The Bilirakis bill would require federal agencies that issue "financial assistance" to add a line on the application asking whether the applicant is delinquent in child support by 60 days or more. Anyone who gets a grant but lies about his child-support debt could be prosecuted for fraud.
The goal is to "ensure that individuals who fail to satisfy their most basic parental obligation are not rewarded," said Mr. Bilirakis, who listed business loans and grants for new technology, cultural festivals, artistic exhibits and medical facilities as targets of the bill.
"We can, and must, do everything in our power to ensure that, at a minimum, [absentee parents] provide the financial support their children need and deserve," said Rep. Steve Horn, California Republican and chairman of the subcommittee.
However, Mr. Fuentes, J.B. Penn, an undersecretary at the Agriculture Department, and two advocacy group officials said that the Bilirakis bill could block noncustodial parents from getting survival benefits, food stamps, job training and other federal assistance aimed at helping them become self-sufficient.
Congress doesnt need to add any more enforcement tools, but could help the system by passing a law to streamline the way child-support payments are distributed, said Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Ms. Jensen defended the Bilirakis bill, arguing that it was "not burdensome" and would highlight the priority the nation puts on paying child support. Mr. Bilirakis added that his bill could be rewritten to target well-to-do parents, not parents who are impoverished.

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