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Advocates' Report Faults County, State on Collecting Child Support

September 10, 1997|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County is "nicely average" in a state woefully inept at collecting child support from deadbeat parents, three child-advocacy groups said in a report released today.

Calling child support the best hope for children to escape poverty as officials place new time limits on public aid, Children Now and two other advocacy groups rank Ventura County's child-support collection program 27th among the state's 58 counties.

Drafters of the report say that Ventura County's middle-of-the-pack ranking comes in a state with one of the worst publicly funded child-support collection programs in the nation.

"Ventura is nicely average in a very bad state," said Leora Gershenzon, an attorney with the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law and primary author of the report.

The report is a mix of good and bad results for Ventura County, which last year managed 36,000 cases and collected $34.5 million.

The report ranks the county fifth statewide in recouping welfare checks doled out to single parents on public aid, fourth in its ability to locate parents and assets and 11th in proving paternity. But the county is 44th in the state in its ability to collect support, reeling in $2.49 for every dollar spent in the collection effort. The report also faults the county program for operating at a $343,000 deficit last year.

Although he had yet to see the report, Gregory D. Totten, the chief deputy district attorney in charge of Ventura County child-support enforcement, defended the agency's record in tracking down and collecting child support from absent parents.

"We've had a good program in place for many years," Totten said. "By no means is this an indicator that our staff is not doing the job. They represent people that care deeply about this program."

Statistical analysis conducted by the California District Attorneys Assn. this year, Totten pointed out, shows that just 52.5% of all child-support cases handled in California are collectible.

The remaining cases involve noncustodial parents out of the country or in jail or people whose identities are unknown.

"In many instances, we have custodial parents that come in and ask for our services when they go on aid but don't disclose the identity of the noncustodial parent," Totten said. "If you can imagine tracking down someone without clear information as to who the person is, it's pretty hard to do."

Still, the report, "California's Child Support Failure: Stalling Welfare Reform," faults the state child-support system for failing more children than it serves. The state collects support for just 14% of the 3.5 million children in the system, the report said.

"The state as a whole--all counties--should be concerned about the lack of oversight and the tolerance for poor performance that goes on at the state level," said Amy Dominguez-Arms, director of policy for Children Now.

Unfortunately, the groups said, performance levels across the state are expected to decline further.

A glitch-ridden computer system installed in 23 counties over the last year, including in Ventura County, was designed to link county computer systems and improve collection efforts.

Instead, accounting records were thrown into disarray, checks disappeared into an electronic void and the system created a huge backlog in opening new cases.

After seven months of using the new computers, Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury decided to pull the plug in June. County officials are now analyzing a system used in Wyoming that would cost about $5 million and would take six to eight months to install, Totten said.

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