For nearly 5,000 parents in Idaho and Washington last year, failure to keep up with state-mandated child support payments cost them more than just the respect of their kids.
They also lost their legal right to hunt and fish through state license suspension programs aimed at hitting child-support scofflaws where it hurts, officials said.
“We will send out a notice that we’re going to suspend and – especially with hunting and fishing licenses, because that’s so dear to these guys – they’ll run out and settle real quick,” said Ross Mason, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “You’re touching some guy’s heart.”
Officials in both states said a little-known provision of state law provides an effective tool for enforcers trying to pry millions of dollars in child-support payments from reluctant parents. In Idaho, licenses can be suspended when non-custodial parents fall behind 90 days or $2,000 on their payments. In Washington, it takes about six months of nonpayment before suspensions are filed, officials said.
Since the mid-1970s, federal law has allowed states to suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of child support. But in many states, including Washington and Idaho, professional and recreational licenses also may be suspended.
Some 27,000 Washington licenses were suspended for non-payment of child support last year, said Bob Withrow, program administrator for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. That included 4,946 hunting and fishing licenses.
“The driver’s license, that’s the big one,” Withrow said. “But there’s a few folks that hunting and fishing are so much a part of their lifestyle, they don’t care about the driver’s license, but they want their hunting or fishing license.”
In rare cases, liquor licenses, medical licenses and licenses to practice law have been suspended as well, he noted.
In Idaho last year, just 10 men lost their hunting and fishing licenses when they failed to make timely child-support payments, according to Craig Wiedmeier, licensing supervisor with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Of those, two appeared to be Kootenai County residents, judging from court records, but state officials declined to confirm their identities.
The men were among more than 1,500 parents of Idaho children with outstanding suspensions in 2005. All told, they owed more than $8.2 million in back child-support payments, said Mason, of Idaho’s health and welfare department.
That’s just a fraction of the $446 million in unpaid child support owed since Idaho started collecting payments through the state in the 1970s, Mason said.
“Even if the kids grow up, that doesn’t mean the obligation goes away,” he said.
In Washington, nearly 257,000 parents owe nearly $2 billion in back support payments, Withrow said.
The license suspensions are part of an attempt to correct a burgeoning problem, officials said.
“It’s not meant to be a punishment; it’s meant to be an incentive to make sure you do pay,” Mason said. “What we care about is to make sure the kids get the money.”
Nonpayment of child support is a chief cause of poverty among women and children, advocates said. The vast majority of parents who don’t pay are men, although officials are quick to note that some noncustodial mothers skip payments as well.
Of 25 people included on Washington state”s “most wanted” list for nonpaying parents, only two are women. The rest are men who owe between $6,300 and nearly $123,000 each in child-support debt, a state Web site showed.
Washington officials figure that only about half of all noncustodial parents make their payments as required. About a quarter make partial payments and a quarter make no payments at all, Whitworth said.
The practical effect of nonpayment is to plunge children into poverty, said Julie Dhatt, executive director for the Transitional Program for Women in Spokane. An informal survey of 16 mothers and their 25 kids showed an average income of $542 a month per family, she said.
Still, at least one state official cautioned that nonpayment figures don’t tell the whole story. A faltering economy, personal crises and other problems can make reimbursement impossible even for parents who want to pay, Mason said.
“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” he said. “They don’t hate their kids – they just can’t afford it. Not all those people out there are deadbeats.”
But for mothers like April Pellman, 30, of Coeur d’Alene, there are few excuses that justify not supporting children. She said her machine shop wages were garnisheed almost $3,000 to repay the state for foster care for her two kids, who are 8 and 11. Her driver’s license was threatened as well. Now that she’s back on track and able to care for her children herself, Idaho officials can’t seem to prompt her son’s father to pay. She said the last payment she received was $100 in 2003.
“I think it needs to be more enforced and it needs to be done sooner,” she said. “It’s not fair that we’re doing it all ourselves.”