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Deadbeat parents, beware. Judge Paul P. Panepinto, administrative judge of Philadelphia’s Family Court, last Wednesday formally introduced the domestic relations division’s new bench warrant unit. A team of 12 specially trained law enforcement personnel — equipped with new technology and statewide endorsement from sheriffs, marshals and police — will be scouring the state for parents who are delinquent on child support payments. “If you fail to meet your obligations to your children, you will be apprehended and held accountable,” Panepinto said. Former law enforcement officer Scott Cummings will be the chief of the new unit. “[Cummings] created the specialized unit and acts as the liaison for the various law enforcement agencies,” Panepinto said. Among the unit’s new techniques for tracking parents is a computerized sketch program called “Faces,” also used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Cummings said there is a need for sketched portraits because families frequently destroy all photos of the delinquent parent. By interviewing family members, police can generate a photograph, which is then stored on a database and shared with law enforcement in all 67 Pennsylvania counties. “Arrests have increased immensely,” Cummings said. “The pilot program has settled 895 bench warrant cases.” Under new guidelines the officers will also be able to apprehend parents during late evening and very early morning hours. Traditional practice has been to arrest parents only during business hours. The unit was formed to enforce more than 800 bench warrants issued each month in Philadelphia. Panepinto said bench warrants can be issued for a host of reasons including failure to take a blood test, absence from a hearing or even a mere computer glitch. He said the new unit will take the circumstances of the issuance of the bench warrant into consideration, as well as the dollar amount at issue, before apprehending the parent. Cummings pointed out that delinquent parents may also have outstanding criminal warrants in Philadelphia or another jurisdiction. Cooperation among agencies can expedite the capture and extradition proceedings as well. In addition to the new unit, Panepinto also introduced the Family Court’s new customer service center. The center occupies the lobby on the first floor of the court at 34 S. 11th Street and is equipped with a playroom for children. He encouraged delinquent parents to come to the center and discuss their problems in person. “If you do owe, we would like you to surrender yourself,” Cummings said. Panepinto tried to assure parents that they should not be threatened by coming to the court to turn themselves in. “No person who has come before me has been arrested,” Panepinto said. “If you come in you will probably walk out with a [payment] arrangement.” Panepinto said he believes the new approaches are working. According to statistics released by the Family Court, the bench warrant unit’s pilot program has produced an estimated total of $152 million in delinquent child-support payments this year. That figure represents an 8 percent increase over the $115 million collected in 1999. “We are reaching our goal to help children receive the support they need,” Panepinto said.

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