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Child support deadbeats remain elusive

March 17, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Mary K. Baker, who works full-time at a convenience store to raise her two children, says she hasn't gotten a child support check from her ex-husband in more than a year.

Kevin Baker Sr. owes $1,540 in back support, said Chris Hart, assistant director for child support enforcement at the Washington County Department of Social Services.

It's not a lot of money compared to what some non-custodial parents owe.

But to Mary Baker, it is money that could help Angie, 18, who is going into the Army and wants someday to become a veterinarian, and Kevin II, 17, a junior at Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

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"Nothing's been done. They can't even find him now," Mary Baker complained.

Social services lost track of Baker about a year ago, Hart said. His last known address was Woodbridge, Va.

Baker's case illustrates one of the biggest hurdles Tri-State area agencies have when it comes to collecting child support, Hart said.

"Location is a key element of child support," she said.

Child support offices in Washington County and West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle recently got new computer systems, which are supposed to make it easier to track down parents who owe back support.

But even with computers, information about someone's whereabouts can be old in one day, said Dennis Wilson, team leader at the Eastern Panhandle office of the West Virginia Child Support Enforcement Division.

"By the time we locate him, he's gone," said Teresa Anthony, the Director of Domestic Relations in Franklin County, Pa.

Baker had belonged to the Army National Guard, which generally has a good record of attaching the paychecks of non-custodial parents who owe support money, Hart said.

But the Army can't find a record for Baker's husband, which makes Hart think that his Social Security number might have been incorrectly entered into a database. That illustrates a drawback of automation.

"It's gotta be a perfect match to get anything back," she said.

When the non-custodial parent and children live in different states - something not uncommon in the Tri-State area - child support enforcement has been particularly ineffective, according to the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, such interstate collections represented 8 percent of the $9.9 billion of child support collected, even though interstate cases make up about 30 percent of all child support cases.

"It's too easy for people to skip across state lines. We're dealing with a very mobile population," Wilson said.

However, the Eastern Panhandle's low unemployment rate makes it easier to collect from the parents who can be found, he said.

Sometimes the office collects money from absent parents but then can't find the custodial parents to give them the money, he said.

Another challenge is collecting child support from self-employed parents, whose income is harder to determine, Hart said.

Some deadbeat parents feel they don't have to pay because they don't see their children.

"You talk to 10 absent parents you'll hear 10 different reasons why they can't make their child-support payments," Hart said.

In 1996, there were 11,000 active child support cases in the eight easternmost counties of West Virginia, said Jeff Johnson, in-house counsel for the state Child Support Enforcement Division.

In 44.5 percent of those cases, child support was ordered by the court. Of the cases with support orders, the state was able to collect on 81.7 percent, Johnson said.

By comparison, Washington County had 6,241 child support cases at the end of January. Of those, 47.8 percent had court orders and 68.8 percent were collected.

Franklin County, Pa., does not keep those kinds of statistics, but Anthony estimated that more than 80 percent of the court-ordered child support cases are collected.

Franklin County's 12-year-old computer system has been a handicap to collections efforts, she said.

Pennsylvania child support offices won't be online with a new federally mandated computer system until October, she said.

"We're hoping that solves some of our problems," Anthony said.

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