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If You Want It Done Right, Do It Yourself

Activism: Sue Berry got tired of waiting for the government to force her ex-husband to pay child support, so she had his wages garnisheed herself. Now she's trying to have the system reformed.

May 09, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After nine years of waiting for a court-ordered child support check, Sue Berry finally decided to take matters into her own hands.

With information from a national advocacy organization, the Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES), the West Covina single mother filed a wage withholding assignment against her son's father, who was working in Pennsylvania. She said she had to show her caseworker at the Los Angeles County district attorney's office the policy manual that spelled out the agency's obligation to enforce the assignment on her behalf.

Last year, the first check arrived for her now 17-year-old son, and more checks have been arriving regularly, said Berry, 34, who is now the state coordinating council president of ACES and a national board member of the 30,000-member self-help group. "It took me six months to do what the D.A. could not do in nine years," she said.

Her story is one of thousands being retold around the country to illustrate the aggravation of custodial parents--not only toward deadbeat parents who won't pay, but primarily toward what child support reformers call a fragmented and dysfunctional collection system. In the process, women like Berry are becoming educated, politicized and increasingly vocal in their campaign for an overhaul of the entire program.

Last week, a coalition of reformers--the National Center for Youth Law, Children Now and the Child Support Reform Initiative --issued statistics showing that Los Angeles County collects child support for less than 13% of eligible children, below even the skimpy 20% national rate.

What's more, government's effectiveness in collecting support is declining just at the moment it will be needed to help with national welfare reform, advocates said. In Los Angeles County, legal advocates said there are at least 1 million children owed child support, including 735,000 children on welfare.

Other signs that government officials have been ineffective in collecting child support include the proliferation of private collection agencies, an industry Berry believes gouges vulnerable custodial parents, and the growth of ACES itself, which is dedicated to educating parents who are not receiving child support. Its members also advocate new laws, work to hold public officials accountable and, Berry said, "do whatever it takes to be sure these people do their jobs."

ACES was founded 12 years ago by Geraldine Jensen of Toledo, Ohio, who was frustrated after being unable to collect child support. She placed an ad in a local paper asking if others had the same problem and the first day heard from nine women and one man. A TV movie based on her life multiplied the membership rolls and helped increase public awareness of the issue. There are now 30 chapters in the state, including five in Los Angeles County.

Berry became involved with ACES three years ago after hearing about the organization on the Phil Donahue show. A child of divorced parents in the San Gabriel Valley whose own father paid no child support, Berry had been a teenage mother who subsisted on welfare when she separated from her husband in 1979. They divorced in 1985 and she took custody of her son.

She then entered a volatile relationship, became pregnant and had another child, a daughter. She supported her family with jobs as a bartender and an aerospace production controller before completing an associate of arts degree in paralegal studies. She now makes $8 an hour as an admissions assistant at the Southern California College of Business and Law in Brea.

Berry said a judge ordered $150 a month child support for her son in 1985 but the district attorney "essentially sat on it for nine years." In the beginning, Berry said she believed the officials who told her, "We're doing everything we can do." After many years, she said, "I was devastated to find out they were doing nothing."

A spokesman for the district attorney said there could be several possible explanations, including trouble finding her ex-husband. But Berry said she knew where he was at all times and kept the office informed.

She joined ACES, studied the newsletter and learned how to do her own wage withholding order. When she succeeded, her anger turned to astonishment. "I felt a great sense of empowerment. Look what I can do, I can't believe this!" She is now working to establish paternity and obtain court-ordered support for her daughter, now 10. Berry started the first chapter in the San Gabriel Valley in 1994. Last year, she was elected state council president and a member of the national board.

She has embraced the cause with missionary zeal, working, she said, for "two generations lost to nonsupport." There are those, like herself, who grew up before child support became an issue and, now, she said, "There are all these kids. The dad's got his agenda. The mom's got her agenda, or sometimes the moms are too darn busy to be concerned with making laws that work or seeing public officials being held accountable for those laws."

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