IN THE LATEST of its studies of the District's
Superior Court, a District of Columbia Bar group found that only 20 percent of parents ordered to pay child support by the court's family division actually do so. And, according to the group whose chairman was attorney Charles A. Horsky, the court system fails to enforce the nonpayment of child support, even though it is aware payments are not being made. Approximately 5,000 parents have paid no child support, forcing the city, through its welfare programs, to pay for their children's care--a cost of close to $11 million.
Nationally, child support enforcement programs have been unexpectedly successful. Substantial welfare savings have been realized, and, more important, the circumstances of many abandoned families have been improved. In the District, however, the program has been run so inefficiently that the Bureau of Paternity and Child Support Enforcement costs the city more for its operations than it collects in delinquent payments. The bureau's backlog has risen to nearly 30,000 cases. Even when the bureau is able to get to a case, locate the parent and obtain payment, the parent left with the children may have been without support for several months. Families that are not on welfare despite nonpayment of child support must hire private lawyers-- at a cost that can be enough to deter them from seeking enforcement of child support.
To remedy this situation, the Horsky committee suggests that the Superior Court Family Division take some sensible steps to strengthen enforcement of its support orders. These include, as a last resort, notifying parents who are delinquent, without good cause, in support payments that they will be held in contempt of court and possibly jailed.
Considering the cost to the city government of having to support children whose parents neglect to pay child support--as well the importance to society of having parents held responsible for their children-- there is every reason for the Superior Court to adopt the committee's recommendations. In the future, those steps could complement an effort by city councilman John Ray (D-At large) to give the city government the right to make claims against the D.C. tax refunds of parents who should be but are not making child support payments.
The courts and the city government for too long have given only the slightest attention to this very serious family problem. Neglect of child support has caused many families hardship and cost the city money. Now is a good time for the city, with the help of the courts, to get aggressive.