The Prince George's County Sheriff's Department has termed successful the second set of arrests in five months of parents who have not paid their child support. However, the arrests have sparked criticism by some local attorneys and fathers' rights groups.
Yesterday Sgt. Terry Justin, head of the sheriff's support collections enforcement unit, said that on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 113 men and one woman were arrested. Together they owed $371,000, according to the department.
Those arrested in the sweeps were wanted on contempt of court warrants for failing to show up in court to arrange or amend support payments.
The majority of those arrested were placed on bonds of $200 to $1,000 and given court dates to reappear to settle their cases. Last night only a handful were still in jail, according to court administrators.
Contempt of court warrants were issued against parents who failed to honor divorce agreements on child support as well as nonmarried parents who must reimburse the social services department for welfare money paid to support their children. In either case, those payments are usually made through and monitored by the Circuit Court Support Collections Unit.
David Levy, a Hyattsville man who is active in a support group called Fathers United for Equal Rights that has been critical of the sweeps, said, "We're not supporting deadbeat fathers." However, he likened the sheriff's actions to "KGB-type middle of the night arrests," that are embarrassing and traumatic. Levy said many fathers withhold child support payments because mothers do not allow them to visit their children.
Justin, seeking to counter that argument, said noncustodial parents have an equal right to seek court orders to allow visitation.
John DiJoseph, an Arlington attorney who has expressed interest in these cases, said he is concerned that the mass arrests set a bad precedent. "What is now stopping them from rounding up people who haven't paid their income tax or parking tickets?"
George Brent, a 46-year-old District Heights housepainter who was arrested in the July sweep, said he sees a different problem: parents being unable to pay if they are unemployed or put in jail. Brent, who said he is supporting three teen-age children, was able to bail himself out of jail in July but he believes the courts are unreasonable in setting amounts they expect absent parents to pay. He said that although he was unemployed earlier this year, "When my children called, I didn't send the money to the courts, I sent it to the kids -- they needed it right then." But he was arrested anyway, he said, because the court had no record of his payments, which he admitted were irregular.
Similar problems of chronic unemployment or privately arranged payments were evident this week in Master Ann Sparrough's courtroom. Records showed that James Stephenson of Hyattsville, for instance, was $1,000 behind in support payments. But he told the master, the term used for judges in domestic relations court, that he was paying the childrens' mother directly, and he held up a handful of canceled checks. Sparrough released him on personal recognizance and gave him a date to return to court to clear up the paperwork.