WASHINGTON - The price of a passport: $311,491 in back child support payments for a U.S. businessman now living in China; $46,000 for a musician seeking to perform overseas, and $45,849 for a man planning a Dominican Republic vacation.
The new passport requirements that have complicated travel this summer also have uncovered untold numbers of child support scofflaws and forced them to pay millions.
The State Department denies passports to noncustodial parents who owe more than $2,500 in child support. Once the parents make good on their debts, they can reapply for passports.
Now that millions of additional travelers need passports to fly back from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and South America, collections under the Passport Denial Program are on pace to about double this year, federal officials told The Associated Press.
In all, states have reported collecting at least $22.5 million through the program thus far in 2007. The money is then forwarded to the parent to whom it is owed.
Some people never learn.
A boxer paid $39,000 in back child support to the state of Nevada last year to get a passport, which he lost. This year, his promoter had to loan him $8,930 so he could pay off his new child support debts and get a new passport to fight overseas.
In one case last year, a man got his parents to pay his overdue child support — $50,498 to the state of Illinois.
"For us, it's been amazing to see how people who owe back child support seem to be able to come up with good chunks of money when it involves needing their passport," said Adolfo Capestany, spokesman for the state of Washington's Division of Child Support. "Folks will do anything to get that passport, so it is a good collection tool."
The $22.5 million reported to have been collected through the program this year is a conservative estimate. Some states voluntarily report the payments to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, but other states don't.
It took all of 2006 to collect the same amount under the program, which began in 1998.
Also contributing to the increased collections was a drop in the threshold for reporting child support debts to the State Department, from $5,000 to $2,500. As a result, 400,000 more cases were submitted to the department.
The state of Washington obtained $24,000 for Teresa Markley through the program. The money accrued over a couple of decades. She said she could have really used the money in past years, and at one point in the 1990s went on welfare for a few months to make ends meet. While her children are now grown, she said the payment still meant a great deal to her.
"What it means to me now is just to have some validation for the suffering I went through," said Markley, a resident of Tacoma, Wash.
Jeannette Dean of Seattle said she had to tap into her retirement savings and her son's savings bond to help pay for basic necessities after Washington state was unable to help her collect delinquent child support payments.
But this year, she received about $36,000 through the passport program. She said the money will be used to replenish the lost savings.
"It has given back to having a normal life versus struggling to pay dental bills and hospitals bills and things like that," Dean said.
The passport denial program is just one of several tools the government has to collect overdue child support. Overall collections totaled about $24 billion last year.
The largest share by far — $20.1 billion — came from withholding from a worker's paycheck. Unemployment insurance or state and federal income tax refunds can also be seized. States with lotteries also can deduct delinquent payments from winnings. Some states submit the names of those behind on their payments to credit reporting agencies.
Payments generated through the new passport requirements are an important sliver of what states collect each year on behalf of about 17 million children, said Margot Bean, commissioner for the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.
"We often get payments of over $100,000," Bean said. "For whatever reason, this was the only way we could get the money."
For some families, the payments can mean the difference between having to rely on the government for assistance or not relying on it, Bean said. In cases where families have needed cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, a portion of the payments received through the passport program is used to reimburse the government.
Another jump in collections from the Passport Denial Program can be expected next year or in early 2009. That's when the new passport requirements will likely take effect for land and sea travelers too.
SOURCE: Associated Press and MSNBC