JANUARY 04, 02:41 EST

Va. Cracks Down on Deadbeat Parents
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia is going statewide with another weapon in its battle against deadbeat parents — pink and powder-blue car boots.

Beginning this month, the state will immobilize vehicles owned by parents who are delinquent in child support with the boots that clamp around a car's front tire. Fairfax County, the state's most populous locality, has been booting delinquents since 1998.

Delinquent parents also will be greeted by a sticker affixed to their windshield reading: ``This vehicle has been seized by the sheriff for unpaid child support.''

The state is hoping the boots and conspicuous sticker will embarrass parents into making payments.

``There's a certain amount of shame factor,'' said Nick Young, director of the Virginia Division of Child Support Enforcement.

The state has recovered about $347,000 from 70 parents whose vehicles were booted in Fairfax County. One man even slung a blanket over his immobilized car so his neighbors wouldn't see it, Young said.

Teresa Myers, a child-support enforcement expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said many states are considering using boots on deadbeat parents, but Virginia is the first to do so statewide. Wayne County, Mich. and Cape May County, N.J. also have used boots to boost child-support enforcement.

As state agencies find money in their budgets to try innovative programs, ``we're probably going to see more of it,'' Ms. Myers said.

In Virginia, about 100,000 delinquent parents collectively owe $1.65 billion to some 552,000 children, according to state officials.

Young said the boots will only be used if:

— a non-custodial parent owes more than $1,000;

— the state has found traditional remedies like court orders unsuccessful; and

— a lien has been filed in the city or county where the vehicle is kept.

``Our goal is not to seize cars and sell them,'' Young said. ``Our goal is get them to pay.''

The state already tows offenders' cars, suspends their licenses and issues posters featuring the ``Delinquent Dozen'' to shame deadbeats into paying.

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, said the boot is another example of humiliation as punishment.

``This is part of a whole trend to reverse the way we do criminal justice and civil justice to a system we were using in the 17th century,'' Willis said.

``This is the stockades. This is the public humiliation,'' he said. ``It's a scarlet letter. It's a punishment by itself.''

Paula Roberts, a child-support expert with the Center for Law and Social Policy, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., said the boots should be used carefully so people who are legitimately trying to pay or are caught in a paperwork error are not targeted.

``Once you're convinced that someone is a true deadbeat, then I think everyone agrees that no remedy is too severe,'' Ms. Roberts said Monday. ``But what so often happens is the data is flawed, and you can end up hurting someone who is actually a model citizen.''

Copyright 2000 Associated Press.