- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

TOWSON, Md. (AP) — Until recently, judges in Baltimore County could order parents to pay child support. They could direct employers to subtract the payments directly from parents’ paychecks, and they could send some nonpaying parents to jail for not obeying orders.

But judges could do nothing about the one problem they hear most frequently from parents behind in child-support payments: They cannot find a job.

A new county initiative — developed in large part by Judge John O. Hennegan and funded through a $150,800 federal grant — aims to address that problem. Begun this month, Baltimore County’s Family Employment and Support Program pairs chronic underpayers with an employment coordinator who meets weekly with the parent to help him find a full-time job and monitor his child-support payments.

Participants must show evidence that they have applied for at least four jobs a week, said Janet Glover-Kerkvliet, the first of two court employment coordinators to be hired with the grant money. (The other is expected to be hired next month.)

“When we see they’re serious about getting a job, we’ll start marketing them through our network of employers,” Mrs. Glover-Kerkvliet told the Baltimore Sun.

After only two mornings of court hearings, Mrs. Glover-Kerkvliet enrolled about a dozen parents in the program.

Susan Engle Parks, special counsel for the Baltimore County Office of Child Support, said she is eager to see what kinds of results the employment coordinators get with the parents — mostly fathers — who say they can’t pay child support because they don’t have a job.

“It’s an opportunity to take that defense away,” she said. “We’ll say, ‘Fine, we’ll help you find a job.’ That way, we weed out the ones who really can’t find work from the ones who are just not paying because they don’t like the mothers or for whatever other reason.”

Baltimore County justice system officials estimate that $30 million in unpaid child support is owed in the county. That figure has climbed to more than $92 billion nationally, according to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. In Maryland, $1.4 billion in unpaid child support has accumulated, the office said.

Judge Hennegan is blunt about the options of the nonpaying parents who reach his courtroom.

“It’s jail or this program,” he said.

The project is an attractive alternative for parents facing the prospect of time behind bars for not paying child support.

“Jail is like a last resort, for people who have committed a crime,” said Rashid M. Hall, 30, who agreed to participate in the new employment program and, according to court records, owes about $20,000 in child support. “Is not paying a bill really a crime? Putting somebody in a cage, that’s not an answer.”

With a 5-year-old boy, an infant son and his wife of five years working full time as a nurse, Mr. Hall said he has been the Owings Mills family’s stay-at-home dad.

The child to whom he owes child support is an 11-year-old boy he says he has never met — the result of a fling he had in his hometown of Parsons, Kan., after his high school graduation, he said.

Mr. Hall was ordered in November 1994 to pay $100 a month in child support and $25 a month toward the amount he owed but had not paid since the child’s birth, court records show.

Asked by Judge Hennegan what problem had kept him from getting a job to help him pay the child support he owes, Mr. Hall said, “There’s no problem. I just haven’t put my best foot forward.”

“Well,” the judge said, “we’re willing to help you do that.”

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