December 28, 1999
Deadbeat parent net is too wide, lawyers say
Pennsylvania defends its child-support push. Notices have prompted many calls.By L. Stuart Ditzen
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The Philadelphia Inquirer
With little fanfare, the state of Pennsylvania has launched an aggressive program during the last year to nail deadbeat parents who fail to pay child support.
An estimated 58 percent of nearly 700,000 people who owe child support in Pennsylvania are behind in their payments.
And since early summer, delinquency notices have been flying like confetti from computers in Harrisburg, warning those in arrears that their tax refunds may be seized, their driver's licenses suspended, their passports revoked and more.
But the new enforcement effort, mandated by federal and state laws, has sparked widespread confusion, anger and frustration.
Domestic-relations lawyers in Philadelphia and surrounding counties say many parents who are not deadbeats are being bombarded unjustly with threatening notices. In some instances, lawyers say, people are getting notices even as child-support payments are being deducted from their wages.
"These are people who are paying their support obligations, and they're being hit with the broad brush of a deadbeat father," said Richard I. Moore, who practices family law in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. "I don't know what they're doing out there in Harrisburg."
So much confusion has arisen that Philadelphia Family Court, which formerly handled all of its own child-support functions for 200,000 cases, has added 40 phone lines and set up a customer-service unit to deal with questions and complaints from frustrated parents. None of this, officials say, has been enough to handle the volume of calls.
"It's a humongous problem," said Family Court Administrative Judge Paul P. Panepinto. "Don't think our phones aren't ringing off the hook. Did you ever hear of 40,000 calls a week?"
In October, the state Department of Public Welfare assumed responsibility from Pennsylvania's 67 counties for processing all child-support payments in the state. Previously, domestic-relations offices in each county had processed the payments.
Under the new system, Common Pleas Courts still set the amounts parents must pay in child support. Those court orders are forwarded to the Welfare Department, which collects and disburses the money. The department's computer system tells county domestic-relations offices whether the payments are being made. If payments are light, late - or not made at all - the computer sends a delinquency notice to the county. The county then sends an enforcement notice to the parent.
Parents who get the notices are confronted with a confusing double bureaucracy when they try to respond.
"You've got two agencies pointing the finger at each other," said Bill Glassmire, past president of Fathers' and Children's Equality, an advocacy group for fathers. "And trying to get in touch with either one of them is like trying to see God half the time."
The aim of the new system is to improve enforcement on deadbeats. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act required all states to establish centralized computer systems to keep tabs on parents who owe child support. Pennsylvania, by way of its new computer system, now can track deadbeat parents anywhere in the country.
Contrary to criticisms about errors and glitches, officials in the state Welfare Department say the centralized collection and enforcement program has gotten off to a good start and is working well.
Daniel N. Richard, director of the department's Bureau of Child Support Enforcement, said the long arms of the computer already were reeling in deadbeats and netting millions of dollars in overdue support payments.
"Problems have been isolated," said Jay Pagni, department spokesman. "They have not been widespread. This has been a very successful system, and it is running very smoothly."
But that is not how many lawyers and court officials in the Philadelphia area see it.
"There are huge problems," said Mary T. Vidas, head of the family-law section of the Philadelphia Bar Association.
One of those problems, according to Vidas and others, is that many parents who are paying child support - and not attempting to dodge their obligations - are being goaded to fury by delinquency notices.
"All kinds of people are getting mailings telling them they're in arrears and their IRS refunds will be withheld," said Philadelphia divorce lawyer Mark H. Berenbaum. "That's epidemic."
"It's driving me nuts," said Brian Mattes, a public-relations executive who works in Valley Forge and who, like many fathers, has child-support payments deducted directly from his wages.
In late October, Mattes received a notice telling him that his federal tax refund would be seized if he did not pay a $905 delinquency. Federal law allows for such interceptions.
Mattes insisted he did not owe the money and fired off a letter of protest. An account statement he received from Harrisburg in early November showed that rather than a $905 arrearage, he was ahead in his payments by $294.
A total of 102,798 "tax intercept" notices of the type sent to Mattes were issued in October to parents in arrears by $500 or more.
The tax intercept is only one of the array of "enhanced enforcement tools" now being used on deadbeat parents in Pennsylvania. Here are others:
If a person falls 30 days behind on child-support payments, a wage attachment goes into effect and funds are cut directly from the person's paycheck.
If payments are overdue by two months, the debt is reported to a credit bureau. Welfare officials said more than 50,000 of those notices had been sent during the last year.
When payments are behind by three months, the driver's license of the delinquent parent can be suspended. About 55,000 license warnings were sent in June. More than 5,000 suspensions have been issued.
If a person is $5,000 behind in support payments, that person's passport can be lifted.
On top of all that, a 1997 state law provides that child-support debts can be converted to liens and placed against a person's home.
Dan Richard, the Welfare Department's enforcement director, said more than $85 million had been collected in the last year through those measures.
In Philadelphia, Margaret T. McKeown, administrator of family court, said the deluge of delinquency notices had shocked thousands of low-income parents who struggle to pay child support and are chronically behind on their payments.
"The whole world called us, or they walked in our doors," McKeown said. "You just can't imagine how many things have flooded the child-support arena in the last few months. It's been brutal."
The delinquency rate in Pennsylvania, according to Welfare Department numbers, is huge. Pagni, the department spokesman, said 415,436 parents among 691,850 who pay child support in the state are, to some degree, behind on payments. The total amount they owe, Pagni said, is $2.1 billion.
But domestic-relations lawyers argue that many people on that delinquency list are only technically in arrears - and some may not be delinquent at all.
"Most guys out there," said Philadelphia lawyer Vidas, "are not deadbeat dads."
In thousands of cases, divorced and separated parents owe back child support before they even start to pay it. That is because judges usually make support orders retroactive to the date a petition seeking support is filed. If, for example, six months go by before the court decides how much a parent must pay, a six-month backlog of payments is due right away. Typically, judges say an extra sum must be added to the monthly payment until the arrearages are cleared up.
But even with such arrangements in place, many lawyers say, clients have been calling to ask why they are getting delinquency notices.
If a parent believes a notice has been sent in error, it does little good to call Harrisburg. Welfare officials say they do not have the power to make adjustments in individual support cases. A court order is required for any change.
More than 25,000 calls a day are fielded by an automated phone system and by customer-service representatives at the state Collection and Disbursement Unit where child-support checks are processed in an office building near Harrisburg.
But thousands of those calls are bounced back to the counties each day because the first thing callers are told is, for anything other than account information, they must contact their local domestic-relations offices.
The Welfare Department contracts with Lockheed Martin IMS to run the computers that process child-support payments. Lockheed has a staff of 150 employees to handle the job. The collection and disbursement unit where they work is much like a payment processing center at a credit-card company.
Ric Carlson, Lockheed's on-site manager, was clearly proud of the operation as he led a reporter on a recent tour. He said the unit received an average of 15,000 to 18,000 checks a day from men and women who owe child support. The staff logs the checks, sorts them, scans them into computers, banks them and issues new checks to parents to whom payments are owed. The whole process is done within 24 hours and with 99 percent accuracy, Carlson said.
But from the standpoint of a parent or a lawyer trying to sort out a problem, the state's collection and enforcement operation, with all its efficiencies, seems remote.
"This system works if you're a deadbeat dad," said Darwin R. Beauvais, a Philadelphia lawyer. "It will find you. But if you're not a deadbeat dad, you're presumed guilty. You're presumed deadbeat. I don't think anybody thought of that."
© 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc..