Government efforts to force deadbeat parents to pay delinquent child support appear to be working: Figures released Thursday by the Department of Health and Human Services show a significant increase in collection of overdue money.
The total amount of delinquent child support payments that the government collected rose 7 percent in 1998 to a record $14.4-billion, an increase of 80 percent over the past six years. The number is a compilation of federal and state efforts nationwide.
A state-by-state breakdown of the $14.4-billion in collections will be released later in the winter.
Federal seizures of income tax refunds contributed greatly to the increase.
Thousands of deadbeat parents across the nation opened their tax refund envelopes only to find that money they were expecting was used to pay their delinquent child support, officials said.
HHS seized $1.1-billion in tax refunds from parents who were delinquent in support payments. More than a million American families in all 50 states received money owed to them through the program.
Under the program, state governments report the names of parents who owe child support to HHS, which then notifies the delinquent parents of the impending tax refund seizure. If the parents do not pay their debt, the amount is deducted from their refund. HHS also can report failure to pay to credit agencies.
The White House also announced that the fiscal 2000 budget proposal will include funding to find and prosecute violators under new laws that make moving across state lines to avoid paying child support a federal offense.
Coordinating collection and prosecution efforts has been successful, increasing the number of federal convictions 18-fold since the program's inception in May.
The program, currently in five states, would be expanded to 17 more states, not including Florida. The White House budget proposal asks for $34-million from Congress to support legal staff in U.S. attorneys' offices to deal specifically with deadbeat parents. An additional $12-million will be reappropriated by HHS to hire and train investigators.
Leora Gershenzon, directing staff attorney for the child support project of the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law, expressed doubts about the value of beefed-up law enforcement.
"While there are people or groups who believe this is exactly what is necessary, it may not be the most effective way," she said. "The whole point is to collect money, and this approach is very expensive. There are other tools out there that are available to find people and move money. The idea is to get cash to kids, not necessarily putting bad guys in jail. It may make you feel better, but it won't necessarily help children."
The Clinton administration has proposed numerous initiatives in recent years to strengthen child support collection efforts. In 1996, it won congressional approval of legislation establishing new penalties for overdue payments, including revocation of driver's licenses.
Pushed by the federal government to enact its own initiatives targeting deadbeat parents, the state of Florida hired two companies for a program that has been largely unsuccessful.
Lockheed Martin IMS and Maximus Inc. were paid $4.5-million in the first year of a contract but managed to collect only $162,000 in support payments. Both companies say they will pull out of their contracts this month.
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.