One Orange County mother says she knows what to do when her family's child support check doesn't come: "We eat lots of beans and peanut butter."
But such belt-tightening is only a short-term solution, and a partial one at that. What can custodial parents do when the money doesn't come for weeks, months, even years at a time?
There are people, organizations, attorneys and government agencies that parents can turn to for help, says Cheryl DeKeyser, a member of Single Parents United 'N' Kids (SPUNK), a child-support advocacy group.
But none of them can offer a guaranteed solution, and each alternative has its drawbacks, she says.
DeKeyser, a custodial mother who is fighting a continuing child support battle, spends a sizable chunk of her spare time advising other parents, mostly mothers, in similar situations.
"We always tell people, 'No one cares as much about your case as you do,' " she says. "That's really important. No matter where you go for help, a lot of it is going to depend on you."
The family support division of the Orange County district attorney's office is where thousands of mothers go for help. The agency, which does not charge for its services, had 38,768 active files as of Dec. 31, 1987, according to Edna Sage, a staff development specialist and spokeswoman for the office.
Those cases are divided into just 46 caseloads, giving each case worker an average of 843 files to handle.
"Our services are available to all Orange County residents who have a child residing with them," Sage says. "All we have to have is a child not being supported. A court order is not necessary. Our general rule of thumb is that if a child is receiving less than $100 a month, he is not being adequately supported.
"We can open a file under various circumstances, but normally we do it when the absent parent is one month in arrears. That's not in concrete, however."
After a file is opened, the district attorney's office can take several approaches to getting money from the absent parent. Wage assignments are the easiest and most popular method, Sage says. And with a state law that took effect last year, wage assignments are even easier. "If they (the custodial parent) can tell us where a person is working, we'll do a wage assignment immediately. With the new law, there doesn't have to be an arrearage."
Wage assignments have increased dramatically since the new law went into effect, Sage says. In 1984, her office had 40-50 wage assignments each month, contrasted with 175 to 200 each month now.
"Our goal right now is to get a wage assignment in every case we can," Sage says.
Under a wage assignment, the absent parent's employer is ordered to deduct the child support from his employee's paycheck and send it directly to the court. "Usually, we can have money within a month," Sage says.
Her office will also try to find absent parents, file liens on real estate and levy against other property such as cars and bank accounts.
"We will levy on just about any asset," Sage says. "The other day, we had a father who was arrested who had a lot of cash with him, and we even took the money in his pockets."
If a state lottery winner owes back child support, the district attorney's office can intercept the money, as it can with state and federal tax refunds. "If the parent is receiving unemployment compensation, we can automatically take one-fourth of it," Sage says.
In cases where the parents are not married, her office can take steps to establish paternity and get an order for support. And if an absent parent lives in another state, Sage says, her office will initiate actions in that state to collect the money. That's true even if the divorce took place elsewhere.
"Where the orders take place is the least of our concern," she said. "If they (the custodial parent) live in Orange County now, we'll try to help them."
Private attorneys pursuing back child support cases for their clients also use her office's services in some cases. "Sometimes they just want the absent parent located, or a tax refund intercepted, which is something only we can do," Sage says.
But most of the actions that can be taken by her office take time, Sage says, and frustrated parents in need of money don't always understand that. "Sometimes people will come to us, and this person hasn't paid support in years, they don't know where the person is, and they expect us to get money immediately."
When all else fails, the district attorney's office can also send delinquent parents to jail, five days for each month of arrears under a civil contempt-of-court charge or six months to a year under criminal charges.
"But that's a last resort," Sage says. "We don't want that; we want money. We will give this person every chance in the world to pay before that happens. It costs the taxpayers money."
In many cases--48% of the district attorney's cases involve families on welfare--the taxpayers are already paying for the children. "This way the taxpayers are not only supporting the children, but the parent.