ANNAPOLIS – If a family can afford it, should the state be able to collect fees for tracking down unpaid child support? Officials of Maryland’s Child Support Enforcement Administration say yes, while activists – and some lawmakers – say no.
The question arose Tuesday from a seemingly agreeable concept: a bill in the House Judiciary Committee to bar the state from collecting fees for its child support enforcement services.
Backers of the measure had a simple message: Don’t take money from children and put it in the hands of government agencies.
“We just feel like someone is trying to make fast bucks off of the people who can least afford it,” said William E. Fromm, founder Second Husbands Alliance For Fair Treatment (SHAFFT), a tiny advocacy group based in Finksburg.
Fromm added that service fees would be “a conflict of interest” as they would become a major source of revenue for the agency.
But Brian Shea, administrator for the agency, denies any conflict of interest. Shea wants the option to charge fees that could total hundreds of dollars, depending on services rendered.
The agency locates deadbeat parents (virtually always males), establishes paternity, sets up payment plans and involves the courts if necessary. Currently, the only charge is a flat $20 application fee, paid by any divorced parent with a dependent child.
“We’re really not interested in putting people on welfare; that wouldn’t be the point of this,” said Shea, adding that welfare families would not be held responsible for any future fees.
The Child Support Enforcement Administration was created to keep divorced parents off of federal welfare rolls, but Shea said that middle and upper-class families are taking advantage of dirt-cheap help. “For $20, you essentially get [unlimited] legal services,” he said.
Last year, the agency regained about $200 million in unpaid child support for 162,000 non-welfare families. At the same time, it recovered $40 million in unpaid support to 132,000 families enrolled in the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.
“We’re being pulled away from the [welfare] cases,” Shea said. “A large majority of the people … can afford these services.”
At the end of the hearing, some committee members had more questions than answers.
“It seemed like a relatively simple concept,” said Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel. But Shea’s testimony, she said, “raised a lot of flags.”
Last year, a similar bill made it out of committee and through the General Assembly with ease, but was vetoed by then- Gov. William Donald Schaefer. This year, however, 13 of the committee’s 22 members are new. And with welfare reform a major issue for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the measure could face more scrutiny. The bill is sponsored by Delegates Kenneth C. Montague, D- Baltimore, and A. Wade Kach, R-Baltimore County. Both said the gist of the proposed law – that kids, not the government, should benefit from support money – should not be ignored. -30-