Judging by recent statewide rankings, any parent hoping to ignore child support obligations in Washington County stands a good chance of being caught.

For at least the fifth year in a row, Washington County leads all metro counties in the ratio of dollars collected to expenses incurred -- the county last year recovered $6.81 in child support for every dollar spent.

That's nearly twice the statewide average of $3.70 and just one of several measurements that has kept Washington County among the top-collecting Minnesota counties for several years.

Here's another: The average collection per child in Washington County was $3,078 in 2010, second only to Carver County. The state average last year was $2,233.

Does Washington County have a secret formula?

"If we knew what it was, everybody would be able to replicate it," Linda Bixby, the county's child support division manager, said of the high ranking. "We get stuff done, which is the bottom line."

But Bixby does offer some insight. Washington County's poverty rate isn't as low as many other counties, meaning more people who owe child support can afford to pay up. In addition, turnover in Bixby's staff of 30 is rare, meaning she has experienced workers who understand how to get results.

Dan Papin, who oversees the entire county Community Services Department, has another perspective: "Linda and her supervisors have unique skills in terms of motivating."

Data released this month by the Minnesota Child Support Enforcement Division show that Minnesota in 2010 ranked third nationally in money collected per child. Pennsylvania was first, and New Jersey second.

Overall, more than $26 billion was collected in child support nationally last year, compared with $5.8 billion spent to recover it. About 17.5 million children were served.

By comparison, Minnesota's collections exceeded $584 million with about $163 million spent to fund child support services. About 269,000 children in the state were served in 2010.

Washington County receives about 160 new child support cases each month. Despite popular perception, Bixby said, most parents owing support want to pay it and won't fight efforts to collect. "I do think that people want to support their children," Bixby said.

But Washington County, like others, has seen a downturn in collections in recent years. Despite the county's comparative wealth, more parents have lost their jobs and just don't have the ability to pay.

Keeping tabs on children's whereabouts is becoming more challenging too -- many parents who owe live outside the county, children change homes more often and more grandparents care for them.

"That is getting to be more common," Bixby said. "We're getting more children moving around and not sitting anywhere very long."

Washington County's overall collections peaked in 2008 near $27 million. So far this year, collections are lagging behind the pace set last year, she said.

Parents who refuse to pay face an array of modern enforcement tools, such as income withholding, frozen banks accounts and seized driver, occupational and recreational licenses.

"It's hard when you deal with parents and families, their relationships don't work, then you're dealing with the money," Bixby said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles