A Maryland initiative to suspend the driver's licenses of parents who are delinquent on their child support payments has goaded offenders into paying $103 million since 1996, state officials announced yesterday.
The threat of losing driving privileges has prodded people across the state into handing over cash--about 121,724 moms and dads during the past three years.
The $103 million "is food, education and clothing for children, and that's really what we are celebrating," Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) told reporters and state officials gathered at a news conference in Annapolis.
State officials say that 137,127 families have been helped under the program, which was created by a 1996 law that became part of the state's welfare reform package.
Striking at driving privileges is but one of several ways the government threatens parents who don't pay up. Typically, wages have been docked and tax refunds intercepted; debts are reported to credit-rating agencies, too.
But the threat of taking away a driver's license has proven a surprisingly powerful incentive.
"It's such an important rite of passage. It's a fundamental freedom. It just resonates with people," said Teresa Kaiser, executive director of the Maryland Child Support Enforcement Administration.
She added: "It's sad. It should be the child and the child's well-being that motivates people."
For Georgina Allotey, 44, this was exactly how it went, she said at yesterday's event. A mother of two, Allotey has struggled to get child support for her children since she and her husband divorced in 1994, she said. Sometimes the money came, sometimes it did not.
"You can sort it out at the courthouse," she said he would tell her.
Allotey held down two jobs to keep her family going--one as a cashier, one as an administrative assistant. Then last month, she said, her ex-husband came up with all $2,700 he owed.
"I nearly cried when I heard I was going to get a check," said Allotey, a resident of Montgomery Village.
"Somehow it worked," she added happily. "When they took his license, he came up with the money."
The much-needed money, she said, has helped get her 17-year-old daughter off to college at Bowie State and has allowed Allotey to cut down hours at her second job so that she can spend time with her 9-year-old son.
All told, 63,568 Maryland drivers have had their licenses suspended because they have not made good on court-ordered child support.
They are part of an overall system of 228,000 Maryland families seeking back support averaging $754. Most delinquents are fathers. About 5 to 10 percent are mothers.
Of the $103 million the state has collected under the new program, $72 million goes to families.
The state and federal governments share the balance, because that money was collected on behalf of families receiving public assistance.
In the era of federal welfare reform, every state has a child-support program that threatens driving privileges as a way to pressure delinquent parents. Maryland's initiative started earlier than many other states', despite critics arguing that driving was a right not to be linked to problem behaviors.
Virginia has had a similar program since 1995 that has collected $51 million. The District's efforts, since 1997, have prodded 1,000 people to come in to pay back support.
"For many, it's the last nudge they need to do the right thing," said Kaiser, of the Maryland program.
CAPTION: Gov. Parris N. Glendening greets Georgina Allotey as state Del. Mark K. Shriver of Montgomery County looks on.