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Child support conference bill pushed

January 20, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County child support enforcement officials are asking for legislation that would give people an incentive to show up for out-of-court mediation.

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About one-third of child support cases are settled at conciliation conferences, saving time for the courts and the parties involved, said Washington County Department of Social Services Director David Engle.

But word has gotten out that there is no punishment for not showing up for the conferences, he said.

Social Services is asking the state to give Washington County Circuit judges the power to issue a so-called body attachment, where a police officer brings a violator before the court to explain the absence. A bond could be set, which would be forfeited if the violator didn't show up at the next court appearance.

The Washington County Delegation sponsored similar legislation two years ago, but the bill failed because it would have given the broader power to Social Services, Hagerstown lawyer Tim Gordon said.

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Engle and Gordon testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday.

If there were more incentive for people to come to the conferences, Engle estimated that two times as many cases could be settled out of court, saving the county $16,000 a year in court time.

"The bill is good for kids, it's good for parents and it's good for the taxpayers," Engle said.

Social Services began holding the conferences in 1996 as a way to streamline child support violation case and requests for child support changes, he said.

About a third of the 100 cases a week were able to be settled out of court, said Gordon, who works part time for Social Services.

Washington County has been a leader for the state in child support collection, said Teresa Kaiser, executive director of Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Administration.

She described Engle as "one of my child support heroes."

Washington County has the highest collection rate in the state at 75 percent, Engle said.

Washington County was the first county to use conciliation conferences, he said.

Last year, three more counties started the practice - Montgomery, Calvert and Howard.

Before Washington County started holding the conferences, chaos reigned on days the court heard the child support collection docket. Child support officials spent up to three hours getting information from the people involved while the judge sat waiting on the bench.

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