BOSTON - Deadbeat dads and moms around the country are discovering that their economic stimulus checks from Washington — intended to encourage the purchase of TVs, cars and other goods — are being intercepted and funneled toward the support of their children.
Treasury Department figures obtained by The Associated Press show that more than 1.4 million of the checks have been seized since the payments began last spring, and a total of $831 million has been collected by child support agencies nationwide.
Cheryl Hayes, a 32-year-old paralegal student from Auburn, Mass., said her ex-husband owes about $30,000 in support for their three children, and she hopes to see some of that via his stimulus check.
Hayes said that while she knows the stimulus checks were intended to encourage people to head down to the local Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Home Depot, in the case of deadbeat parents, their children's well-being should come first.
"The stimulus check is something at least they can get to help live off of," Hayes said. "It should go to the children because the children are the ones that would need it."
The parents who are owed child support won't immediately see the money. And in some cases they may not receive it at all.
The intercepted checks in Massachusetts, for example, are deposited with the state and held for 180 days to allow the parent to file an appeal. If the appeal is denied, the money is turned over to the parent who has custody — in most cases, the mother — unless she has been on public assistance, in which case the funds can go back to the state and federal government to reimburse the taxpayers.
Some states hold the funds longer, others for less time.
In California, $97.9 million was collected via 152,877 diverted checks, while Texas brought in $80.3 million from 132,144 payments. Rhode Island saw a $1.9 million boost from 3,465 diverted checks. Massachusetts took in $11.2 million, Tennessee $24.4 million.
"It's been a very nice bonus for our children in need of support," said Mike Adams, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services. "We've been very pleased with the amount of money we've been able to collect."
The stimulus program proposed by President Bush and approved by Congress provided $600 checks for most individuals and $1,200 for couples filing jointly, with a $300 per-child credit added on.
States submit the names and Social Security numbers of deadbeat parents to the IRS, which crosschecks those names against the lists of taxpayers receiving stimulus checks. The IRS then sends the deadbeat parents' checks straight to state child support agencies.
The diverted ones are just a fraction of the more than 112 million stimulus checks issued as of the start of July. So far, the IRS has dispensed checks totaling $92 billion. It will continue processing tax returns and issuing stimulus checks for much of the year.
Ned Holstein, founder of Fathers and Families, a Boston-based organization that supports the rights of fathers, said the seizing of economic stimulus checks ignores the fact that most fathers who owe child support are earning little.
"We're trying to support very poor people, the mothers and children, from the pocketbooks of other very poor people," he said. "There are those who are just downright avoiding their child support payments, but there are many more who just can't make their payments."