State Attorney Generals Step Up Child Support Enforcement
By Bennett Clark, Staff Writer
Touting slogans like "You can run but you can hide" and "Pay child support on time or do time," several state attorneys general are using their legal and political clout to make life uncomfortable for parents who fail to pay child support.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox officially launched a program last month that will pursue criminal charges against parents who owe more than $40,000 in child support. If convicted of criminal non-support, Michigan parents face up to four years in prison.
All 50 states have laws that make failing to pay child support a crime, according to Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES), a non-profit based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Federal Office of Child Support estimates the total amount of unpaid child support exceeds $90 billion nationwide.
Child support delinquency burdens taxpayers, who often foot the bill for extra health and social services that child support covers. Cox's office estimated that Michigan taxpayers have picked up the tab for $3 billion in health and social services as a result of unpaid child support.
Cox said he hopes to use the "bully pulpit of government" to pressure parents into paying child support.
A new public awareness campaign, funded by corporate sponsors including General Motors, will pay for 39 billboards in Michigan. Each billboard will tell drivers either "Pay child support on time or do time" or, "We never treat deadbeats with kid gloves." A picture of handcuffs will dominate the "kid gloves" signs.
Michigan prosecutors will target parents who have the means to make pay child support, according to Matt Davis, a spokesman for Cox.
"We're going to take the low hanging fruit first. It could be a doctor, a dentist, an accountant, whoever. With all those professions, it's going to be the threat of imprisonment that makes them pay," he said.
Cox's efforts, which have netted $725,000 since April, will only make a dent in Michigan, where parents owe more than $7 billion, according to a report by the Federal Office of Child Support.
Jensen believes that Michigan's new program will encourage parents to keep up with child support by stigmatizing those who don't pay. For now, she says, that stigma doesn't exist.
"It's like they don't take the obligation seriously. One could compare it to a situation where you never paid your light bill and they never turned the lights off. How many people would pay?"
Attorneys General in other states are also taking aim at deadbeat parents.
In July Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon began filing civil suits to strip people who have failed to pay child support of their professional licenses.
Among Nixon's first targets were two medical doctors, three chiropractors, a beautician, a tattooist and a professional wrestler, The Kansas City Star reported.
Scott Holste, a spokesperson for Nixon's office, said that the attorney general's efforts are designed more to scare parents into paying child support than as a form of retribution.
"The suspension of the license does not provide child support money to the children to whom it's due. That is just one of the ways we want to get [the parents'] attention."
The Mississippi attorney general's office has an 18-month-old "You Can Run But You Can't Hide Division," which has been prosecuting parents who owe child support.
According to Nancy East, who heads the division, prosecutors pursue criminal charges once other methods of collecting child support, such as income withholding or driver's license suspension, have failed.
In Mississippi, as in other states, those convicted of criminal non-support sometimes go to a restitution center instead of a penitentiary. Most restitution centers have programs that help convicts find jobs and begin paying their child support debts.
ACES President Geraldine Jensen said she believes that tougher enforcement of child support laws by Attorneys General will ultimately translate into concrete benefits for children.
"Strict enforcement is the key to make sure that fewer children live in poverty," she said.