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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Locating Deadbeat Dads--for a Price

July 28, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some mothers, desperate for child support and frustrated with clogged government bureaucracies and overpriced collectors, see Lawrence Olmstead of Palmdale as a sort of Robin Hood of the '90s.

Olmstead is the founder of Detectives Against Deadbeats (DAD), a nonprofit organization that will locate noncustodial parents free of charge. He specializes, he says, in those who have the money but flagrantly refuse to pay.

"There are a lot of limitations put on children if they grow up in poverty, with a lot of stress and pain and identity problems," says Olmstead, a father of three. "We want to make a difference in the children's lives. We want to make sure children are OK and have what they need."

In Los Angeles County alone, child support cases have grown in the last six years from 200,000 to 700,000. The county collects support for less than 13% of eligible children, the second to worst record in the state.

Another problem has grown concurrently--an industry of entrepreneurs who hope to tap this huge and growing market of desperate parents. These are the lawyers, collectors and investigators who, unhampered by huge caseloads and government restrictions, can trace deadbeats and dog them until they pay. For a hefty chunk of the take, that is.

As child-support cases have grown, so have collectors' advertisements on billboards, fliers and telephone poles, in shoppers and on the Internet.

While some custodial parents are pleased with the collectors' success, others see them as vultures, picking over whatever bones are tossed to struggling single mothers and their children.

Michelle Fudge, coordinator for the San Diego chapter of the Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES), says, "Their philosophy is always, if we get something, you get 75% and it's more than you're getting now. That's their sales pitch. A desperate woman will bite on that."

ACES members are concerned because the entrepreneurs are unregulated, she says.

If a custodial parent has signed a contract with a private agency, for example, and a noncustodial parent's wages are attached, the agency could continue to collect its portion of the child support--typically 30% but occasionally upwards of 40%--until the child is 18, ACES members say.

Fudge recalls a case last year of a mother who had canceled her contract with a private collector. "The collector got wind she was working through the state and was going to receive the money. He slapped a lien on her house and said she owed him money." The mother was then forced to hire an attorney to deal with the collector.

Olmstead says he started his free locating service after thousands of desperate parents called his for-profit detective agency, World Investigative Network, for help but said they couldn't afford his fee.

So far, he says he's helped 300 parents. His work in locating a parent isn't the whole answer. Clients may have to turn back to the overburdened district attorney's office for follow-up help to get the money. (The district attorney is also now using the Internet to help locate parents who refuse to pay their child support. The office can be reached at .)

Olmstead dreams of finding corporate sponsors to continue funding what he views as a philanthropy. "If we get enough contributions," he says, "We plan on starting day care, so the parents can go to vocational training to educate themselves so they can get a job.

"We can't sit idly by and say these people are not doing enough. We need to be responsible and do what we need to do to help the children."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include a telephone number.

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