More than 100,000 military, Postal Service and other federal workers are refusing court orders to pay child support or acknowledge paternity, according to the agency that scoured national personnel records for deadbeat parents.
The number of non-paying parents on the federal payroll is potentially embarrassing for President Clinton, who promised tougher child-support enforcement during his campaign, made it a central part of his welfare reform plan and brought it up during his last State of the Union address.
The federal government has known about the problem for years but has done little to fix it, asserted Paula Roberts, a child-support expert with the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal research and advocacy organization.
“It’s really a disgrace. It’s a little hard for them to get on the moral high ground about all the deadbeats out there, when they can’t even clean their own house,” Roberts said. “The government does have the ability to go after its own and reinforce the moral and financial message, and it has chosen not to do that.”
Although states are responsible for collecting child support and establishing paternity - the first step in getting court-ordered support - they need help from the federal government if the parent is a federal employee.
When a state requests help, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, searches federal and military personnel records for the addresses and employers of non-paying parents.
With that information, states can try to get the parents to court hearings and deduct child support from their paychecks. But Roberts and federal officials say the process is extremely cumbersome and in need of reform.
Melissa Skolfield, a spokeswoman for HHS, said matter involves a “maze of laws and court decisions.”
“The issues are particularly complicated as they affect the Armed Forces, and we are actively reviewing a number of strategies for making improvements,” she said.
According to HHS, its locator service last year found 74,880 non-paying parents employed by the Defense Department, either military or civilian, and 30,831 deadbeat parents working for other federal agencies, the federal judiciary, and the Postal Service. It did not break down the number of parents by agency or military service branch.
HHS does not track how much money is owed, but an investigation six years ago illustrated the cost of the problem. In 1989, the HHS inspector general found 64,310 federal employees who owed as much as $284 million in child support. In two-thirds of the cases, the children were on welfare.
According to current HHS estimates, nonpaying parents represent 3.2 percent of the Defense Department’s work force and 1.3 percent of the federal work force, including the Postal Service.
David Gray Ross, who oversees the federal child support office, says the government is sending the wrong message by failing to get tough with its own employees.
But legislation being drafted in Congress as part of welfare reform will help address the problem by establishing central registries that track child support orders and all new hires, he said.
“Obviously, we’ll be addressing the issue with all employers, across the board. But it means that the federal government will not be exempt,” he said.
Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., who is overseeing the Republican effort to rewrite the nation’s welfare laws, said it is the “height of hypocrisy” for the White House to claim to be tough on deadbeat parents when it has failed to make its own workers pay.
Shaw said Clinton should use the power of his office to force federal employees to pay, and that the government should set the standard for the rest of the nation.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who has worked on the issue for years, calls child support enforcement “welfare prevention.”
“Many, many of those cases get rolled onto the welfare rolls and that is just outrageous,” she said.
Roberts said the president could address at least part of the problem by executive order, without a vote of Congress, starting with a requirement that the military cooperate with the state agencies.
Some base commanders refuse to allow employees to be served with court orders requiring them to pay or appear in court, or refuse to let parents attend hearings until they are on leave or out of the service, she said.
“These are people with regular paychecks, that can be garnisheed. These parents are people with access to health insurance that could cover their kids. And these in many cases they are people who could get extra military allotments to pay for the support of their kids,” Roberts said.
“It’s virtually a population of sitting ducks,” she said, “and if the government cannot and will not go after these folks, how can you turn around and yell at states for not going after people who in many cases are much harder to get at.”