Spokane’s biggest collection agency crams 67 investigators inside a remodeled Safeway off Maple Street.
The collectors are state employees. The people they chase didn’t default on car, home or credit card loans. They owe their children money.
Along with getting tailed by the collectors, so-called deadbeat parents who don’t pay child support are getting hammered by politicians like never before.
Many call child support enforcement the hidden key to keeping mothers off welfare and sustaining middle class families.
President Bill Clinton advocates yanking driver’s licenses if parents don’t pay. Some states try to shame deadbeats with FBI-style most-wanted posters.
Washington state’s division of child support enforcement has one of the 10 best records in the country for forcing non-custodial parents to share paychecks with their kids.
And the state’s enforcement tools are getting mightier all the time.
Computers provide instant access to welfare, revenue, birth, credit and driver license records. Collectors can now grab assets, IRS refunds, trust funds and more:
Three years ago, the support enforcement office in Spokane seized a limousine from a Spokane man who ran a chauffeur business. He owed his children $8,000. The timing was perfect. It was the senior prom season. He paid the bill.
A collector recently found an alleged world-traveling deadbeat on the Internet. The collector used e-mail to persuade him to return to Spokane for a blood test to determine whether he is the father. He is due in town in a couple of weeks.
Last fall, the office closed a 20-year father hunt. The latest collector on the case found the man in North Carolina working for a trucking company. The firm had a Washington agent, so the collector was allowed to immediately tap the man’s salary, and force him to pay off the debt to his kids.
Sometimes investigators get lucky.
A Spokane man, who repeatedly claimed he was out of work, no longer could deny an income after he appeared behind the wheel of a tow truck in a Spokesman-Review photograph.
The state’s regional office of Child Support Enforcement in Spokane employs 129 people and covers eight Eastern Washington counties.
Collectors juggle about 500 cases each, gathering about $3.5 million a month. About half the cases involve mothers on welfare, in which collections go to the state treasury.
Their easiest cases involve reliable parents who pay the monthly support bills. The state collects the payments and passes the money along to the parent who has the children.
The payment rates are set by divorce courts, by the state after paternity investigations, or by other agreements.
The Spokane office caseload is growing. As many as 90 cases arrive daily. About 30 new people were hired in the past two years. It takes four full-time receptionists just to answer the telephones.
Ed Bennett runs the office. A former private attorney, Bennett prides himself on what he calls an efficient division of the state Department of Social and Health Services.
“We are like a private business here. We are not a fat, bloated bureaucracy.”
Bennett also sees the work as noble.
“I believe that what we do here may be the salvation of the world. That may sound extreme, but people need to be accountable for their children.”
Despite the state’s high collection ranking, fewer than half of the noncustodial parents pay their child support during an average month.
A fifth of them are on the run, hiding their assets, income or whereabouts, collectors estimate. About 95 percent are men.
Spokane collectors said some parents simply have money problems, or contest the fairness of the payment demands, which usually range from about 25 percent of every paycheck for one child, to almost 50 percent for four children.
Others refuse to send money to exspouses or lovers they now hate. Still others have drug problems, or were young parents and are overwhelmed by the growing debt.
Some simply run and hide.
They work under the table or flee jobs before the paperwork catches up. They move to states where enforcement is slow and the courts are jammed. They shift assets into other people’s names. Some change their names or Social Security numbers.
Spokane collectors are frustrated by a Spokane man who owes his children about $40,000. He recently shifted his assets into his girlfriend’s name. She now heads three companies, and claims he isn’t getting a paycheck from any of them.
In another case, a Mississippi doctor should be paying $1,000 a month to his former wife in Eastern Washington. Instead, he sends only $200 a month because Mississippi laws let him get away with it, a Spokane collector explained.
A New Jersey man who owed about $10,000 to help his former wife care for his child was tracked down recently.
When the Indian immigrant reluctantly agreed to pay off his debt, he sent the first $1,000 in rupees. He recently sent the final payment.
The Clinton administration and some lawmakers are pushing for national laws that would make it easier and quicker to force collections.
Many states don’t work well together now. As a Spokane collector explains, the state gets quicker responses from Germany than New Jersey.
Washington state officials want to require employers to report new workers within five days, so they know almost instantly when a deadbeat gets a paycheck.
One Spokane office supervisor explained that collectors are courteous and professional, but she said they also can be dogged.
“If you are going to try to hide your assets from me I’m going to find them because your children are hungry,” said Sue, who wanted to remain anonymous. “And I am going to work at it a little harder than I would to collect for a corporation.”