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O.C. Ranks Low in Enforcing Child Support

Welfare: But a county deputy D.A. says advocacy group's data on delinquent parents are old, inaccurate.

May 01, 1996|JOSH MEYER and LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A new report on the collection of child support payments ranks Orange County among the worst in the state in terms of recouping money for children from their absent parents.

The report by Children Now, a legal aid and advocacy group, placed Orange County 47th among the state's 58 counties. But the county's standing rises when compared to similarly populous areas.

Among Southern California counties, Orange County is bested only by Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Children Now officials said that California overall compared poorly to the nation and required an overhaul to create "a simpler, uniform administrative process for handling child support," the vast majority of which is owed by fathers.

"Imagine if only 13% of the adults who are owed tax refunds this year got them," said Barbara Grob, director of the Child Support Reform Initiative, in response to the report. "The public outcry would be enormous. Voters and public officials would demand immediate reform of the tax agency."

Although they agreed that more improvement is necessary, Orange County officials defended their collection efforts and suggested that the Children Now study was flawed.

County child support officials say differences in county demographics are critical to a fair analysis of Children Now's rankings.

"The Southern California counties have some unique attributes and different problems, especially with the transient population, the immigrant population we have here," said Jan Sturla, deputy district attorney for child support in Orange County. Indeed, counties in Northern and Central California generally had the highest success rates, with San Luis Obispo ranking first in the state.

In particular, Orange County's large immigrant population creates a backlog of cases because paternity is often difficult to establish and child support almost impossible to recover, Sturla said.

Citing the "child only" cases the district attorney's office must pursue--cases in which the mothers are not eligible for welfare because they are not citizens, although their children are--Sturla said his office is required to keep files on thousands of cases where collection is virtually impossible.

"For example, right now we have 1,500 guys named 'Unknown Unknown' on our caseload--those are welfare cases we were required to open where the mother has reported that she does not know the last name or the first name of the father.

"We have another 2,000 cases identified only by first name because mom either does not know or does not want to tell who the people are," Sturla said.

Moreover, Sturla said, Children Now's report is based on information that was provided to the state by district attorneys' offices and is now a year old, no longer reflecting the unit's performance accurately.

"I think it's a little bit deceptive to cite these as current statistics--nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

For example, while the report credits the county with establishing paternity (determining through blood tests who fathered a child) for only 18.5% of its cases and obtaining court orders for fathers to support children for only 14.4%--numbers among the lowest in the state, Sturla says the actual percentages are much higher.

A recently discovered computer glitch, he said, kept the county from being credited with thousands of paternity cases and support orders the office has established.

"We've filed an amended [statistics form] with the state, so we expect to see the numbers spike up dramatically once that goes through," he said. "In the past year we've had a new mass program going on where we basically establish 1,000 new paternities a month, so I know there's been improvement."

Also hindering the office's efforts to close cases has been the staff cuts necessitated by the bankruptcy, Sturla said.

Before the bankruptcy, the unit was authorized to have 340 staff members; today it has 280. Meanwhile, the caseload has risen from 129,000 to 144,000, an increase of 11% in the past year.

But as low as Children Now ranked Orange County's performance, special censure was reserved for Los Angeles, which ranked 57th, performing better overall than only tiny Butte County.

"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."

There are horrific computer problems, administrative glitches and bureaucratic runarounds. The office lags far behind most counties in determining paternity for children, obtaining court-ordered judgments and collecting when the dads refuse, or forget to pay.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil 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 added that the county has been overwhelmed in recent years by a caseload that has increased at an astounding rate.

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