The problem often is getting the delinquent parent to the conference, said Social Services Director David A. Engle. That's why he has requested legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that would grant his agency unusual authority to subpoena people involved in child support cases, forcing them to attend the conferences.
"It forces them to sit down and talk to one another," he said.
Engle said that on any given Friday, as many as 80 child support contempt cases are scheduled for Washington County Circuit Court.
Getting a case on the court docket can take eight weeks, and the cases can tie up a courtroom and its staff for most of a day, Engle said. The children lose out because of the time it takes to collect the delinquent support, he said.
A conciliation conference, by contrast, can be scheduled quickly, requires just one employee to mediate the dispute and often lasts less than an hour, he said.
Those owing back child support often view a conference as less threatening than going to court, and are more likely to deal with an agency that will work with them, Engle said.
He told of a man who hadn't paid support for several years and owed $6,000. The man had no intention of facing a judge and was intent on "going underground" to avoid court. After working with Social Services, he made a $3,000 payment before Christmas last year, Engle said.
"I think it was one of the most wonderful days we had, and it made all the work we do seem worthwhile," he said.
The legislation could stir controversy because no other social services agency in the state has such authority. Engle said he expects some tough questions at a Feb. 19 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said he had feared the bill might give state employees the kind of power usually reserved for courts. But Poole, who is an attorney, said the legislation has been written to give the court oversight authority.
Poole said in addition to streamlining the child support process, the legislation could ease the caseload on the Circuit Court.
"I'm just someone who thinks child support generally doesn't belong before a Circuit Court judge," he said.
Engle said the legislation is in line with a mandate the state gave his agency two years ago to use better, faster and cheaper ways to do the jobs.
He said many child support cases still will need to be resolved in court, and defendants would still have that choice.