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Report Assails County Over Deadbeat Parents

Courts: Group calls child support collections one of state's worst. Officials say they are making improvements.

May 01, 1996|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite long-running efforts to improve the system, Los Angeles County's program to force deadbeat parents to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in child support remains among the worst in the state, according to a study to be released today.

The study by the statewide legal aid and advocacy coalition Children Now found that Los Angeles County ranked 57th among the state's 58 counties, performing better overall than only tiny Butte County.

As a whole, California's child support collection programs are criticized as "among the poorest in the U.S. and getting worse," said the study, titled "Past Due: Child Support Collection in California."

The study comes at a time when Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti is under increasing fire for his beleaguered child support collection system. Mothers, Legal Aid lawyers and even members of the county Board of Supervisors said Tuesday that Garcetti's Bureau of Family Support Operations is failing at nearly every level.

"It is a phenomenal financial and technical fiasco," said Leora Gershenzon, directing attorney of the Child Support Project at the National Center for Youth Law, and principal author of the lengthy report. "They are failing every step of the way."

Garcetti was in Washington on Tuesday and referred calls to the longtime chief of his office's family support operations, Wayne Doss.

Doss said he had not seen the report but that the county has been overwhelmed in recent years by a caseload that has increased at an astounding rate.

That has been compounded, he said, by the county's fiscal crisis, hiring freezes and a lack of courtroom space in which to seek judgments against those deadbeats--the vast majority of them men--who refuse to pay child support.

"There are people who have child support problems. There is no question about that," Doss said. "But I will maintain steadfastly that we have a better way of managing our caseload now than we ever had."

Although Los Angeles officials have said they are hampered by their urban sprawl and overwhelming caseload, the study's authors said other large urban areas such as Alameda County have done far better, and continuously improved. Alameda County, which includes Oakland, improved its performance in the percentage of families for whom it has obtained court orders, the amount of support collected per family, the cost-effectiveness of its program and its net cost to the county.

"In contrast," the study said, "Los Angeles declined in every one of those measurements."

According to the most recent statistics forwarded to the state, Los Angeles County has about 730,000 child support cases--40% of the statewide total. But only 29.5% of those cases handled by Garcetti's office have orders for support, compared to the statewide average of about 50%, the study said.

During the 1994-95 fiscal year, the district attorney's office collected an average of $253 per case for the year, a 5.2% decrease from its collections the prior year and well below the state average of $436 excluding Los Angeles County, the study concluded. Alameda County, by contrast, averaged $784 per case, up from $724 the prior year.

Some California counties ran their collection operations effectively and efficiently enough to make a profit, the study found. Under a federal program, counties are paid a fee for successfully collecting child support payments. Alameda County added more than $2 million to its coffers in this way.

But Los Angeles County operated its program at a net loss of $11 million--at a time when Garcetti's office and the entire county were locked in an unprecedented fiscal crisis and desperately needed the money elsewhere.

The county's loss was shared by the hundreds of thousands of impoverished families in the county who weren't getting money they need for food, clothing, education and other necessities for lack of child support payments, advocates and officials said. Better collection and enforcement efforts could have kept many families away from the welfare rolls, or helped them get off welfare, the study's authors said Tuesday.

Among the county's problems in recent years has been its elaborate computer system that was built in an effort to automate collections, but initially ended up creating delays.

But since that system went online last year, it has begun to eat away at the huge backlog of cases, and will soon help bring the county up to par with most other counties around the state and even surpass them, Doss said.

Doss also said that each of the state's 58 counties reports its collection efforts to the state differently, and that Los Angeles is being penalized for its accuracy and aggressiveness.

"I think we'd be closer to the middle of the pack" in a ranking among counties, he said. "We certainly wouldn't be near the top, but we wouldn't be at the bottom either."

But that is where Los Angeles County's child support collection efforts rank in the current study and a host of other reports issued in recent years by a variety of advocacy groups.

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