Chad Brown found himself in a vicious circle two years ago -- one familiar to many of the 250,000 parents in Minnesota who must make child-support payments every month.

The Chaska construction worker lost his job. Without income, he fell thousands of dollars behind on his payments for his teenage son.

That brought him to the attention of the Carver County attorney's office, which could have charged him and sent him to jail for not making the monthly $600 payments.

Instead, Carver County officials helped Brown, 33, find a job. They also fixed his car, paid his union dues, even bought him boots and winter clothing so he could work. "They helped me out a lot," said Brown, who is in the process of catching up on his child support payments.

Brown is one of scores of parents who benefit each year from Carver County's innovative approach to collecting child support from parents.

The county spends about $1.4 million a year on its collections efforts, but sending people to upgrade skills or find jobs doesn't cost extra because parents are helped through established county programs for which they are eligible. As a result, parents might qualify to receive gas cards, bus passes or even have a county-paid cab take them to work.

The county handles more than 2,000 child support cases a year. County officials say they are willing to take these extra steps for one reason:

"It's all about the kids," said Diane Alsleben, the county's child support supervisor. "The more money we bring in, the better their lives will be."

Tops in the state

Anoka County has more cases. Hennepin and Ramsey counties take in more money. But Carver County is the state's most effective in collecting child-support payments.

It recently was ranked No. 1 by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) for the second year in a row in collecting money on outstanding child-support cases.

During fiscal year 2007, Carver collected $4,166 per case and also had an 84 percent rate of collections when court action was initiated, DHS said in its recent Minnesota Child Support Performance Report.

In that time Carver County collected almost $8.4 million. The average amount Carver collected was $261 more per case than the next county, Le Sueur, which averaged $3,905.

"Children are a priority," said Carver County Attorney James Keeler, "and these numbers demonstrate that ... children are supported financially in Carver County."

While Carver is one of the richest counties in the state, which often leads to higher child-support awards, state officials said that only partly explains its success. Instead, they point to the county's willingness to try different approaches to collection.

These include a workforce program that uses counseling and training, such as resume-writing and computer classes, to improve skills and find jobs.

About 50 to 60 people a year are helped in this way. As a result, the county saves thousands of additional dollars because parents stay out of jail and their families stay off public assistance rolls.

"The idea is to keep collecting," said Jennifer Stanfield, who runs the collections efforts for the Carver County attorney's office. "Rather than automatically hitting them financially or automatically sending them to jail, we give them the opportunity to [pay]."

Jim Harding can attest to that. The 50-year-old factory worker lost his job this summer, and soon fell behind on his $200-a-month payments for his 8-year-old daughter.

He was placed in the workforce program, where he had his resume updated and also enrolled in computer classes to learn new skills. He was given two $20 gas cards so he could drive to job interviews.

"The Carver County people really went above and beyond," said Harding, who found another factory job in Chaska on Nov. 1 through the county workforce program. "It was a nightmare cycle I was in."

National problem

Harding and Brown were far from being alone in battling that cycle. DHS collected $614 million in child support last year, a slight increase from the year before, for the 251,000 child-support cases in the state. But that paled in comparison with the $1.6 billion owed in past-due child support payments in the state's 87 counties, the DHS report said.

Nationally, more than 17 million children received $24 billion in child support last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But that is only about 60 percent of the total owed each year. The amount of uncollected child support payments totals more than $106 billion, according to Supportkids, a private child support enforcement company in Texas.

"It's a huge problem nationally," said Chuck Johnson of the state DHS. "We're usually in the top 10 when it comes to collections."

Johnson said Carver County's high performance can be attributed to a number of factors, including the sense that the county "seems to give more individual attention to cases."

Alsleben and other officials said this is because everyone from the County Board to the District Court judges are willing to provide the resources and time to handle the cases.

There are 12 people assigned to cases, as well as one full-time assistant county attorney to file and prosecute child-support cases. The county also has reorganized its agencies so that if people come in for one service, such as child-support collection, they are put in contact with other related services, such as the job training and placement program.

Jim Broucek, manager of the Carver County Income Support Department, said the extra collection efforts "can make a world of difference to an individual raising children."

Among other collection and enforcement methods used by Carver and other counties are withholding income, suspending driver's licenses, intercepting tax refunds and lottery winnings, denial of passport applications or renewals, and filing civil contempt charges.

Stanfield said that while Carver County is willing to work with parents, in recent years it also is increasingly pursuing criminal charges against deadbeat parents, including one father who was $112,000 in arrears on payments.

"We don't do it with every case," she said. "It's just one more hammer that we have."

Herón Márquez Estrada • 612-673-4280