Orlando Sentinel

Deadbeat dads more myth than reality

By Kathleen Parker
Commentary

Published in The Orlando Sentinel, Sunday January 24, 1999

Forget plastics. Forget computers. Tell your kids to become deadbeat-dad bounty hunters and keep those divorces coming.

Today's best business opportunities may well lie in the pursuit of deadbeats -- even if they don't actually exist -- and the collection of child-support payments, which service is financed by, guess who, you, the ever-drowsy taxpayer.

In Florida last year, taxpayers paid $4.5 million for the state to collect $162,000 from deadbeat parents, mostly fathers, and clean up the child-support bureaucracy. The money went to two private companies -- Lockheed Martin IMS, a New Jersey subsidiary of the huge defense concern, and Maximus Inc., a consulting firm in Virginia. Both companies conduct similar services in other states as well.

Typically, as was the case in Florida, the companies are paid $50 for every file they close, plus a commission on money collected.

Lockheed was assigned 101,325 cases and closed 37,270, for which the company was paid roughly $2.2 million. For its efforts during 14 months, it managed to collect $137,839 in child-support payments. Maximus closed 46,692 of 89,560 cases and was paid $2.25 million. It got 12 deadbeats to cough up $5,867.

Broken down, the state of Florida, using state and federal funds, paid about $1 for every $4 collected, according to Donna O'Neal, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Revenue.

How can so much be spent for so little, and why are taxpayers footing the bill?

The answer to the first question is because bureaucracies are inept. Many of the Florida files closed out by Maximus and Lockheed were duplicates or outdated files, i.e. deadbeat dad was dead, children were grown, and so on. O'Neal notes that this mess preceded the Department of Revenue's stewardship of the child-support system.

In addition, most of the custodial parents contacted didn't want or need the state's help to collect payments, said Bob Johnson, vice president of Maximus. Under law, custodial parents on welfare have no choice but to accept state-ordered collection services, while non-welfare recipients have the option of declining the state's help.

The answer to the second question is, you'll have to ask President "Paladin" Clinton, who, despite such questionable spending, has promised to spend $46 million more of your money during the next five years to help investigators and prosecutors track and prosecute deadbeats. The president also has pushed for states to deny deadbeats a driver's license, to withhold wages and -- this is a hoot -- lottery winnings. Those oily shysters -- always winning lotteries and never sharing.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the dastardly deadbeat dad is, alas, more myth than reality. It's so much easier, after all, to despise a man who abandons his children than it is to find fault with a man who, though he may suffer certain, um, weaknesses, shows up for parent/teacher meetings, if not impeachment hearings.

What Maximus and Lockheed Martin learned in the process of tracking down non-paying parents is that most who don't make child-support payments are, in a word, broke. You can't give what you don't have.

According to the Census Bureau, only 10 percent of non-custodial fathers fall into the "deadbeat dad" category. Fathers with joint custody pay 90.2 percent of all child support ordered. Those with visitation rights pay 79.1 percent of all child support ordered. Forty-four percent of those with no visitation rights support their children financially. Which is to say, the deadbeat-dad problem isn't quite the plague we've been led to believe it is.

Parents who abandon their children are the worst kind of skunks. But spending $4.5 million of taxpayers' money to collect $162,000 of somebody else's plainly stinks.

Kathleen Parker's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Her column also appears Wednesday in the Sentinel's Living section. She can bereached at Kparker@Kparker.com on the Internet.

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.