State pursuit of deadbeat parents shows a troubling zeal, some say

By Tatsha Robertson, Boston Globe, Globe Staff, 7/16/2000

July 16, 2000

Nothing would keep Lindsey Wenger's father away from her graduation at Newton North High School. Her mother had died three years ago, and Robert Wenger just had to be there.

As she approached the stage last month, he recalled, he turned to his other daughter and said, ''We did it!''

He edged toward the front of the outdoor stage, squeezing past thousands of other proud relatives. Then, as his youngest daughter reached for her diploma, his camera clicking away, two sheriff's deputies grabbed him and slapped on a pair of handcuffs. For nearly 10 minutes, the 53-year-old father, wearing a brown sport jacket and black slacks, stood near the front of the stage, praying that Lindsey hadn't seen what happened.

“It's an absolute outrage” said Mark Charalambous, founder of The Fatherhood Coalition, a local fathers' rights group, about arrests at baseball games and school events. "We are going through a time when men are being demonized."

Wenger was arrested for owing $13,000 in child-support payments to his daughters, Lindsey and Amy.

After the graduation, Lindsey immediately asked, ''Where is my dad?'' according to Amy, 24. ''Then she said, `How could they do this to me?'''

Since 1992, when the Commonwealth began its sweeping campaign to chase down deadbeat parents, the state has claimed millions of dollars that otherwise would have gone unpaid. Now, fathers' rights advocates argue that the state is becoming overzealous and that arrests like Wenger's not only further alienate the father but may traumatize the children.

''It's an absolute outrage,'' said Mark Charalambous, founder of The Fatherhood Coalition, a local fathers' rights group, about arrests at baseball games and school events. ''We are going through a time when men are being demonized.''

Despite the humiliation, Wenger said coming to Newton was worth the risk.

''No matter what they did to me,'' he said, ''they couldn't take away the joy of seeing my daughter graduate.''

According to Brian Greeley, spokesman for the Middlesex Sheriff's department, it is not his department's role to decide when or where to make an arrest. When an opportunity arises, officers make the arrest, he said. Police had been searching for Wenger for years, and the girls' maternal grandmother told them Wenger planned to attend the graduation.

''If we spotted him and pulled him over, then he would have been arrested. The bottom line to this is that we don't make value judgments,'' Greeley said.

State officials said the amount of child support collected in the most recent fiscal year is 14 percent higher than the year before, and they credit the jump to their aggressive approach.

But the state, said Revenue Commissioner Fred Laskey, does everything it can to collect money without making an arrest.

''Our effort is to try to get people to pay and work cooperatively,'' he said. ''Our main goal is to encourage voluntary compliance. Most people do the right thing. Unfortunately, there is a small segment who we have to work real hard to chase and track down.''

Laskey said the parents arrested are often located hundreds, and sometimes, thousands of miles outside Massachussetts. In April, David Sperlonga Jr. of Pittsfield was folding his clothes in a Palm Beach, Fla., laundromat when he was arrested for owing $34,000 in back payments, according to authorities.

Two months later, police and investigators traced Robert Thomas, originally of Cape Cod, to his home in Hawaii. He reportedly owed $51,000 in child-support payments.

And, last year, Larry Silvia was arrested after traveling to Taunton from Florida to donate a kidney to his ailing sister. He allegedly had missed $40,000 in child-support payments.

Yet even as the state is hailed as having one of the toughest child-support programs in the nation, officials say 40 percent of the 100,000 noncustodial parents, mostly men, still do not pay their weekly court-ordered child-support payments.

Many Wenger family members would not speak to the Globe, but Robert Wenger, who now lives in Clifton Park, N.Y., agreed to talk.

According to court documents filed by his in-laws, their relationship with Wenger worsened after his wife, Diane Wenger, died of cancer in 1997. Her death came during their divorce proceedings. The family later claimed he owed $13,000 in child support.

Wenger wouldn't discuss the problems he had with his relatives.

After Diane Wenger's death, her youngest daughter - Lindsey, 18, lived with her grandmother and aunt in Boston. Lindsey now lives in Newton with her older sister, who was away at college about the time of their mother's death.

While the girls' maternal relatives, in court documents, claim that Wenger was not actively involved in his daughters' lives, other court documents paint a different picture of the girls' relationship with their father. Lindsey claimed that her father, a massage therapist and part-time Red Cross worker who grossed $541 per week, paid her rent, food, and car insurance. At one point, she also petitioned to move to New York to be with him.

Wenger's tale is one that reflects a potent political issue: how to handle parents who fail to pay court-ordered child support.

There was a time when fathers could easily escape paying child support by simply leaving the state.

''The problem was there was no recourse,'' said Majorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America, a national family rights group. ''The courts would order child support, but there was no punishment if the man didn't pay.''

In 1992, Massachusetts began distributing the ''most wanted'' posters, which display pictures of parents who owe more than $5,000 in child support.

Since the poster campaign began, the state has collected $1.6 million in child-support funds just from parents featured on the posters, said Nicole St. Peter, spokeswoman for the department of revenue. Of the 75 parents who have been featured only nine have not been found.

In 1993, the state developed a computer program that can help locate the bank accounts of a delinquent parent.

But even some, such as Engel, who see the need for tough action on child-support payments, say that the state has become overzealous in its punishment of men. Sometimes, she said, men face losing their jobs because they were arrested at work.

Wenger posted bail for the $13,000 he owed his in-laws for child support, as well as some $4,000 in legal fees from the child-support proceedings.

Wenger said both daughters visited him every day he was in jail. On the last day of his 26-day stint, he said the other inmates gave him a standing ovation as he walked out the door.

Lindsey, he said, was waiting for him as he was being released.

''She grabbed my hand as if I was an 82-year-old man,'' Wenger recalled. ''She said, `Dad, let's go home.'''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 7/16/2000.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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