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County Office Aims at 'Deadbeat' Parents for Back Child Support


The 37-year-old mother is filled with despair. A newcomer to Los Angeles and unable to find work, she relies on public assistance to support her daughters, 11 and 8. Her former boyfriend, the girls' father, left the family six years ago and has not been heard from since.

Now, with the aid of the district attorney's office, the mother hopes to claim some of the thousands of dollars in child support that is due her daughters. "I'd like the government to get it back for me, no matter how small it is," said the Jamaican-born mother who asked that her name and those of her daughters not be used. "Uncle Sam has been better to my kids than their own father."

The district attorney's Bureau of Family Support Operations, at 5770 S. Eastern Ave. in the City of Commerce, tracks down "deadbeat" parents--usually fathers--across the United States and in foreign countries to seize their salaries or assets.

Officials can tap wages, federal and state tax returns, state lottery winnings, bank accounts and disability and unemployment benefits, said Carol Mentell, the bureau's public inquiry coordinator.

Property also can be seized and auctioned, with proceeds going toward unpaid support. And fathers whose employers offer medical insurance at a "reasonable cost" are required to provide coverage for their children.

But finding fathers and tapping their resources can take months, if not years, case workers said. Indeed, the bureau collects support in only 25% of the cases it opens, according to its statistics.

Mentell said some fathers have no permanent addresses because they follow seasonal work. Others who ignore court orders use aliases to avoid detection. Those who disregard a court order are still legally required to pay the support, as well as the interest that accumulates on back payments. Violators face up to one year in county jail and/or three years' probation and fines of up to $2,000, Mentell said. Failure to pay support also is reported to credit agencies. "It surprises them to find out that they are ordered to pay by default," Mentell said. "When it comes to the law, ignorance isn't protection."

Last fiscal year, the bureau worked on more than 400,000 cases countywide, collecting more than $124 million, according to figures it compiled. Ninety-eight percent of the cases involved absent fathers; the remainder, absent mothers.

Two-thirds of the clients are welfare recipients and are automatically referred to the bureau by the county Department of Public Social Services. Others are referred by courts or are walk-in clients.

Marriage is not a prerequisite for obtaining child support. Unmarried parents can prove paternity through court-ordered blood tests, Mentell said.

Federal law requires states to cooperate with one another in locating absent parents and obtaining support. The bureau also works with foreign governments or agencies.

The bureau's Commerce division--in the same building as the administrative headquarters--serves most of Central Los Angeles along with Commerce, Bell, Maywood, Bell Gardens, Highland Park, East Los Angeles, Downtown and Exposition Park.

The El Segundo Division, 621 Hawaii St., serves Southwest Los Angeles, Cudahy and South Gate. The West Covina division, at 2934 E. Garvey Ave., serves Huntington Park.

The bureau's child support hot line: (213) 728-1000.

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