I-Team: RI looks to fix problem finding deadbeat parents

They're parents, often dads, who don't pay up, slip away and simply ignore supporting their children.

The federal government caught up with Stephen Swallow last year in Michigan. The 48-year-old man owes about $323,000 in child support to his Rhode Island family.

Swallow is now serving a six-month prison sentence. His ex-wife in Cranston, Anne Aldridge, told the NBC I-Team that it's a "small price to pay for abandoning four small children and in the end he did get away with it because he'll never pay back what he owes in my lifetime."

Swallow lived and worked off the grid for 13 years while ducking his ex-wife. He began work at a McDonald's restaurant between his capture and prison sentence.

Child support accounts for a large portion of a family's safety net.

"It's one-third of their income," said Sharon Santilli, head of Rhode Island's Office of Child Support Services.

Santilli is tough, but realistic, overseeing 56,730 active child support cases. Out of those, 31,290 parents are behind on their payments, nearly half.

"I don't like the term 'deadbeat dad,'" said Santilli. "It infers all of the fathers, or non-custodial parents, that aren't paying are intentionally not paying. There's a whole group of individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, especially in Rhode Island in this economy," Santilli said.

There are many mothers who don't pay too, although the number is significantly smaller than fathers.

Santilli said she has no problem calling parents deadbeats if they don't pay but have the resources.

Going after deadbeats has become a technological game of cat and mouse. The state can electronically suspend a driver's license, take a tax refund or grab an insurance settlement.

In all, Child Support Services collects about $88 million a year. It's a move the agency favors over prosecution and locking someone up, who then isn't paying a dime.

"To be quite honest with you, if I find an individual with a bank account with $50,000 in it, I'm going to take that bank account. I'm not going to refer that case to the U.S. Attorney," Santilli said.

Parents are called to Family Court for a number of reasons. They may owe money; they may not. Either way, if someone fails to show up, the state goes looking for them.

They're called body attachments. Although similar to warrants, they involve civil cases. And in the past two years, the I-Team discovered more than 1,200 have piled up.

"I was kind of shocked to find out the number was that high," said Chief Sheriff David DeCesare, Rhode Island's newly appointed head of the Division of Sheriffs.

In the past, the division's Apprehension Unit had always scooped up deadbeat dads with state police. The unit temporarily disbanded after a re-shuffling of the sheriffs under the Department of Public Safety. DeCesare said he's working to bring the apprehension unit back.

"That's going to be one of my main focuses over the next few months and coming year, as soon as we can get these deputy sheriffs up to par with the training and equipment."

Santilli said it's been difficult to track down these parents over the past two years and welcomes any help she can get.

"Hopefully, that unit will be re-established soon. We need that unit," said Santilli.

Out of the 1,200 outstanding body attachments, Child Support Services provided the I-Team with a narrowed down list of 176 that are considered good leads.

Six are women.

Child Support Facts:

83,126 children in the Rhode Island system

$228.5 million is owed to Rhode Island children ($97 million in interest)

$88 million collected in 2012 ($75 million went to families, the highest number in New England)

Failure to pay child support can rise to a felony after three years of willful arrearage or $10,000 of past due support.

Rhode Island laws require child support to be paid through wage withholding. Fifty percent of employers remit electronically to the State Disbursement Unit, 50 percent remit by mail. Payment is then copied and posted to parents' accounts and deposited to the Kids Card (electronic debit card).

All payments are made through the State Disbursement Unit.

Cell phone legislation awaits the governor's signature, allowing Child Support Services the ability to utilize cell phone records of parents.