James Lewis Jr. sat in Prince George's Domestic Relations Court before Master Clifton Grandy yesterday afternoon, his head slightly lowered, his cuffed hands resting on a table in front of him.
Sheriff's deputies had hauled Lewis away from his home in Palmer Park early in the morning for his failure to make timely child-support payments to the mother of his child. He owed more than $1,600 in back payments and had failed to show up for an earlier court date to explain his delinquency.
"What are you going to do about this, Mr. Lewis?" Grandy asked.
"I want to take care of it . . . pay it . . . any way I can, your honor," Lewis answered nervously.
Lewis shared his predicament with 71 other persons arrested in a predawn sweep of parents who are delinquent in their child-support payments. Thirty deputies left Upper Marlboro about 3 a.m. yesterday, armed with arrest warrants for 497 late-paying parents. By 10 a.m., the deputies called it a day.
Most of the 72 arrested were male and fully clothed. Few had time to comb their hair. Those who weren't cooperative ended up in court wearing as little as gym shorts, socks and undershirts.
"We try to let them get dressed," said Sgt. Terence Justin, who heads the sheriff's department's child-support enforcement unit. "Naturally, if we are in a hostile situation, the first thing we want to do is remove ourselves."
For most of the wayward parents, Grandy ordered salary deductions. In the case of Lewis, who works for an upholstery company, Grandy ordered a $100-a-month deduction, to keep current with his payments as well as contribute $40 a month for back payments.
With his repayment schedule settled, Lewis inquired about his release.
"You have any money with you today?" Grandy asked.
"No, your honor," Lewis said.
"Well, how do you expect to get out of here?"
"But your honor, the sheriff didn't give me a chance to grab my wallet."
Grandy ordered Lewis held on $500 bond. Deputies led him from the courtroom, with Lewis shaking his head and mumbling "$500" over and over.
The roundup yesterday was the third conducted by the sheriff's department since June 1984. Each of them has come weeks after the county offered amnesty for parents for whom arrest warrants have been issued.
"I wish more people would take advantage of the amnesty," Justin said. "It would make my job a lot easier, and it would go easier on them, too."
It also would make life easier on Grandy and his staff. His usual docket is about 50 cases daily, so yesterday his daily case load increased by 50 percent. At 6 p.m. yesterday, Grandy was still hearing cases.
Not all of the parents arrested had sought to avoid making child-support payments.
Kelvin D. Brown of Allendale Court in Landover, county records showed, owed more than $1,700 in child support. But Brown told Grandy that he had married his son's mother, and she came to court to verify his story. The Browns said they had notified the county, but their file had no record of the notification.
Grandy ordered Brown released and his case closed.