Prince George's County Circuit Court judges have decided to impose a 5 percent service charge for collecting court-ordered child support payments. The fee will be paid by the parent who receives the money.
County judges said the money is needed to pay increased costs, and said they decided to collect from the county's estimated 9,000 recipients because it would be more efficient than to attempt to renegotiate each court order to reflect the new payment. The changes are scheduled to go into effect July 1. Most of the court-ordered support payments involve cases in which the payments have fallen in arrears.
Court officials said they believed this type of fee is unique in the area. Nonwelfare parents applying for support are charged a $20 fee in the District. No fees are charged in Fairfax County, according to officials there, but in Montgomery a 3 percent fee, with a cap of $1.50 a month, is charged to the parent paying the child support.
Bob Harris, a deputy director with the U.S. Office of Child Support in Rockville, said federal legislation gives states the option of charging fees to either the parent paying child support or the parent looking after the child. According to a Prince George's Circuit Court report, custodial parents are charged fees in 10 states besides Maryland.
Prince George's Circuit Judge Robert S. Woods, who worked with two other circuit judges to formulate the changes, said the judges decided to impose the fee because "the program was getting more expensive and the county was looking at a shortfall." Woods said the only way to avoid making recipients pay the new fee would be to renegotiate each court order establishing the level of support.
Woods said the courts are imposing the fee at the request of the county government, which had been faced with an estimated deficit of $30 million.
Aides to Prince George's Executive Parris Glendening said that Glendening never approved the fee directly. "It must have been something that was in the works on the staff level," said Chief Administrative Officer John Wesley White. Fern Piret, another Glendening aide, said, "Our position would be that if it is at all possible, the spouse who is in arrears should pay."
The financial pinch was further felt, Woods said, when the federal contribution to the cost of administering the program fell last year from 75 to 70 percent. The federal government's contribution made for collecting money owed to welfare recipients also fell, from 15 percent to 12 percent. This "incentive bonus" is contributed to the state's general fund, to be distributed in any way the state wishes.
Moreover, said Woods, after July next year the courts will be required to provide services to all those who cannot afford a lawyer.
He noted that parents who believe they cannot pay the additional fee can request a court hearing to get their support payments increased.
"I really believe they are penalizing the child," said Eileen Catterton, a mother who will lose about $11 a month from the amount she receives for one child. "It's the delinquent parties that should be responsible."
Janet Hankins, a District police officer who receives child support payments of $200 a month through the Prince George's Court, said the new policy will not create financial hardship for her, but she protested as a matter of principle. "They need the money, sure, but they shouldn't take it off my kids," she said. Hankins said she has asked the Women's Legal Defense Fund to take legal action in an effort to get the fee decision reversed.
Clare Harrigan, a paralegal at the fund, said such fees have been permitted since 1975, when a Social Security Act amendment required states to set up Support Collection Units to help collect overdue child support payments.
Since 1980, Harrigan said, Maryland has allowed only welfare recipients and those classified as "low income" to use the service. The General Assembly voted this year to lift that restriction as of July next year.