RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia is going to clamp down on deadbeat parents by immobilizing their cars with baby blue and pink "boots."

Since 1998, Fairfax County in suburban Washington has been clamping the colorful boot on the front tires of parents who are delinquent in paying child support. This month, Virginia is taking the idea statewide. A sticker will also be glued to the windshield: "THIS VEHICLE HAS BEEN SEIZED BY THE SHERIFF FOR UNPAID CHILD SUPPORT."

The state is hoping the boots and conspicuous sticker will embarrass parents into making payments. "There's a certain amount of shame factor," said Nick Young, director of the Virginia Division of Child Support Enforcement.

The state has recovered about $347,000 from 70 parents whose vehicles were booted in Fairfax County. One man even slung a blanket over his immobilized car so his neighbors wouldn't see it, Young said.

Teresa Myers, a child-support enforcement expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said many states are considering using boots on deadbeat parents' cars, but Virginia is the first to do so statewide. Wayne County, Michigan, uses neon pink and blue boots, and Cape May County, New Jersey, uses the common orange boots. "We're probably going to see more of it" as state agencies find money in their budgets to try innovative programs, Myers said.

Virginia and other states use the boot most often to force payment of overdue parking tickets or other vehicle violations. The boots used for traffic offenses are bright yellow or orange.

In Virginia, about 100,000 delinquent parents collectively owe $1.65 billion to some 552,000 children, according to state officials. To get deadbeats to pay up, the state also tows offenders' cars, suspends their licenses, and issues posters featuring the "Delinquent Dozen."

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, said the boot is another example of humiliation as punishment. "This is part of a whole trend to reverse the way we do criminal justice and civil justice to a system we were using in the 17th century," Willis said. "This is the stockades. This is the public humiliation. "It's a scarlet letter. It's a punishment by itself."

Paula Roberts, a child support expert with the Center for Law and Social Policy, a public interest law firm based in Washington, said the boots should be used carefully so people who are legitimately trying to pay or are caught in a paperwork mixup are not targeted. "Once you're convinced that someone is a true deadbeat, then I think everyone agrees that no remedy is too severe," Roberts said Monday. "But what so often happens is the data is flawed, and you can end up hurting someone who is actually a model citizen."

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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