County tweaks child support effort

Other states improve their performance and take a greater share of federal funds

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Deadbeat dads and moms beware.

Allegheny County's child support enforcement program is adding dozens of employees, retooling its organizational structure and planning a major expansion of its work space in Downtown's Family Court building.

It's all part of a statewide effort to attract more federal aid by improving the monitoring and collection of tens of millions of dollars in child support payments.

Pennsylvania often scores near the top of a national ranking of state programs. But in recent years, some perennially under-performing states have started to improve their scores. They are now drawing more money from a $439 million pool of federal "incentive" funds, leaving significantly less for the Keystone State.

"As the other states catch up, you have smaller pieces of the pie," said Daniel N. Richard, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Child Support Enforcement.

From 2004 to last year, the state's share of federal incentive money dropped from $29 million to $26.8 million. Allegheny County's share of the money dropped from $816,000 to $207,000, with the county making up some of the difference from its general fund.

The county's child support program has an annual budget of about $14 million. Last year, the state gave Allegheny County the first installment of a $1 million grant to begin an overhaul of the program.

Patrick W. Quinn, administrator of the adult section of the county Family Court, said his office had created a new department structure for the program's 235 employees. He is in the process of adding another two dozen positions, including more midlevel supervisors.

The county soon will start soliciting bids for the construction of new space in the Family Court building, which is in the former jail on Ross Street.

Allegheny County's enforcement record is impressive when compared with other large urban areas, but state and local officials hope that higher federal scores will bring in more aid.

The county handles about 15 percent of the state's total child support cases. At any time, officials here have an average of about 80,000 open cases. There also are more than 7,000 outstanding arrest warrants for "deadbeat" parents who have fallen behind in their child support payments.

In 1975, Congress authorized the use of federal matching funds for the enforcement of child support, envisioning it as a way of reducing the growing costs of welfare payments to families with absent fathers.

States administer the enforcement programs. And, in Pennsylvania, county Common Pleas courts take on much of that responsibility.

In Allegheny County, parents seeking support payments for their children first meet with domestic relations officers, who try to determine paternity. The vast majority of cases involve a father providing support, although the number of women in the breadwinner role is increasing.

If a parent disputes a familial connection with a child, a caseworker can call for a genetic test right there in the office. A nurse uses a cotton swab to collect a small cell specimen from inside the mouth of the man, and sends it to a laboratory in New Orleans. A test costs $210, and the county receives results in about three weeks.

Caseworkers use a state formula to establish monthly payments. If parents disagree, they can go before a hearing officer. At the next level, a judge weighs in. About 1 percent of cases make it that far.

Most payments come directly out of a parent's salary. Last year, Allegheny County's child support program collected more than $159 million. The state distributes the money.

If payments aren't forthcoming, enforcement officers take over. Pennsylvania has an advanced computer system, PACES, that can locate parents. It is connected to a vast federal database which makes use of Social Security and tax records, credit agencies and other resources.

"Eventually, if a guy gets a new job, we'll find him and get the money," Mr. Quinn said.

If a parent doesn't get a job and stops making payments, the child support program initially pushes "automated remedies" such as loss of driver's license, freezing of bank accounts and tax liens.

The next step is the threat of jail. When a parent doesn't show up for a court date, a judge can issue a warrant for his arrest.

Some parents will do almost anything to avoid paying child support, according to Jim DaBiero, who recently was promoted to bench warrant supervisor.

Several months ago, Mr. DaBiero said, a pair of constables tried to arrest a man at his home in Pittsburgh. The man, in his 20s, told the constables he was the another person. He asked if he could get his wallet to show them identification. They agreed.

The man ran through the back door and tried to slide into a basement window, seeking a hiding place. When he hit the floor, he broke both of his ankles.

Instead of taking the man to jail, the constables took him to Mercy Hospital.

Mr. DaBiero said men had tried to hide in spots ranging from ditches to hollowed-out furniture.

In 1995, sheriff's deputies found Dr. Hisham Tarabishi hiding in a closet in his brother's apartment in Banksville. The doctor, who had been living in Egypt for several years, owed $206,198 in child support.

Some recent organizational changes in Allegheny County's child support program include the creation of an inter-jurisdictional department for cases that cross the county's borders. Also, Mr. Quinn said, the program is trying a team approach, with groups of employees following specific cases from beginning to end.

Mr. Richard, the state director, said he hoped his office's grant to Allegheny County would partially pay for itself by helping to improve the county's performance record, earning more federal money.

"There's room to nudge up here," he said.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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