Some Prince George's County judges have started shifting the burden of a 5 percent fee now charged to custodial parents who ask help from the court's child-support unit in collecting delinquent support payments.
The judges think the fee, which went into effect July 1, should be paid by the delinquent parent, and they have begun setting child support payments 5 percent higher than normal to pay for the fee.
"The child support is for the kids, so if it's reduced 5 percent, that's food coming out of their mouths," Domestic Relations Master David Rumsey said. "If the father hasn't been paying, I set a fair amount and add 5 percent."
But not all the judges add the surcharge to child-support payments, and some add it only in certain cases.
"You can't make the father pay what he can't afford to pay," said Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Mason.
Thus the parent with custody of the children, almost always a mother, often still receives a 5 percent cut in support payments, a fact that 17 mothers have given for dropping out of the program.
For Laverne Smith, mother of a 16-year-old daughter, who withdrew from the program in June, the fee would have meant a loss of $120 a year.
If her husband falls behind in his payments, "I'll take a day off from work and take him to court," she said.
Most Maryland counties charge something for collecting child support, though none as much as Prince George's.
The Prince George's support collections unit, with a staff of 19, is funded with $660,000, of which 70 percent, or $462,000, comes from the federal government. The county must contribute 30 percent, or $198,000.
Prince George's judges were asked by the county budget office earlier this year to look at ways to cut the county's contribution to the program. The judges first wanted to impose a fee on the delinquent parent but said they would have had to take 12,000 cases to court to renegotiate each support order. They then voted to impose the fee on the recipient.
The fee brought $37,290 to the county in July. However, 70 percent of that goes back to the federal government, and the remaining 30 percent is not earmarked for the collection unit.
One child-support recipient, Janet Hankins, was so upset with the fee that she called the county Women's Legal Defense Fund about filing a lawsuit challenging the fee. The defense fund is considering her proposal. Hankins said she objects to the fee in principle and because many women can't afford to give up 5 percent of their payments.
"If they don't have the right to take that money from the men without proper court procedure, how is it legal for them to take it away from the kids?" she asked. "For some of these women it could make the difference in getting a pair of shoes or getting lunch for their children."
Hankins, 34, a D.C. police officer and mother of two children, lived in Laurel at the time of her divorce and so goes through the Prince George's collection unit. Her child-support payments of $200 a month have been reduced to $190.
Circuit Court Judge Robert Woods, who proposed the fee, defended it. "I don't think we could do it any other way," he said.
Woods has recommended that he be among 15 members of a task force that the Prince George's County Council has said it will appoint to review the child-support process.
"We won't be discussing philosophical ideas," Woods said, "but practical ways of collecting child support efficiently with the least pain for everyone."