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California and the West

Crackdown on Child Support Is Paying Off

Families: A bigger budget allows Orange County district attorney to boost success rate, raising collections from $57 million in 1995 to $90 million last year.

January 12, 1998|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORBA LINDA — For six years, Susan Engelhardt prodded and pleaded with her ex-boyfriend for child support. Her efforts went nowhere, until Orange County backed her up with a tough enforcement program.

The boyfriend, who lives in Utah and is the father of Engelhardt's 8-year-old son, now makes his court-ordered $350 payment on time every month and is paying down the debt that accumulated over the boy's lifetime.

"It makes a big difference," said Engelhardt, who is among thousands of parents who have started seeing the fruits of the county's commitment to making noncustodial parents pay. "When you go so long without child support, you learn to live without it. Then it's almost like a gift every month.

"The biggest thing it's done is helped with investments for college," said Engelhardt, a supervisor with a commercial real estate firm, whose son attends private school. "His future is a little more secure than it was a while ago."

About half of Orange County's 150,000 open child-support cases involve families on welfare, many of them struggling single mothers and children for whom a monthly check of a few hundred dollars would make a world of difference.

For the other half, those like Engelhardt and her son, the need may be less obvious or pressing. But child support debt is not collected on the basis of need, said Susan Delarue, chief of the Orange County district attorney's Family Support Division. It's a matter of responsibility and justice.

"A significant number are not paying because they choose not to," said Delarue, who was hired in late 1995 to strengthen the division's collection record. "Whether it's Daddy or Mommy, you would think the children would come first. Unfortunately, not everybody sees it that way."

It's Delarue's job to convince such debtors that, like it or not, they must make their court-ordered payments. With a sharp increase in budget and staffing, she's been able to dramatically boost the county's success rate, raising collections from $57 million in 1995 to $90 million last year. The budget comes entirely from state and federal funds, Delarue said.

Despite its success, the county's overall collection rate--like the national rate--is low, at only 18%. As Delarue said, "There is still a great deal of work to be done."

In the last two years, the division saw its annual budget grow $6.5 million to $25.6 million. It hired 87 staffers, added 450 computers to the existing 40 and expanded its training program from one week to five.

Now when clients call to ask about a case, a staffer can quickly pull up the file and describe where it stands in detail, rather than rummaging around antiquated files for hours.

Perhaps most important, Delarue said, the culture of her office has changed. It's become more service-oriented and friendlier, even to the long-term debtors who are now known as "child-support evaders" rather than deadbeats.

Engelhardt, who first brought her case to the county's attention in 1991, has seen the child support division evolve firsthand.

"The first couple of years, it would take a week or two for them to call back. It was always a different person, and they wouldn't know what was going on with the case," she said. "It was really frustrating.

"It got so bad, I would send letters instead. It would take forever to get a response, and then they usually didn't understand the question. Really, it would take a good six to eight months to get an answer to something that seemed very simple."

Engelhardt said two years ago that she noticed a change.

"They started answering my questions right away, and then I would get calls with updates. Then all of the sudden, a check showed up with no warning. And he's been paying every month since."

Like many cases, Engelhardt's was complicated. She lived with her boyfriend, Darrin Brown, in Utah for two years, but the two separated shortly before she learned she was pregnant. Engelhardt moved back to her hometown of Yorba Linda to give birth while Brown left for Washington state. Her long fight to collect support payments began as soon as her son was born.

Through the courts, Engelhardt established paternity and had a payment schedule worked out, but Brown disappeared. It took several years to track him down, after he returned to Utah, she said.

The first check, a $5,000 federal tax refund seized by the county, came last June. She received $3,800 more from a bank account in September. Since then, Brown has been mailing payments of $350 each month.

Some cases have been on the county files for so long that the children involved have grown and moved away from home. But the cases remain open as long as money is owed and the custodial parents are interested in collecting.

Sometimes, after years of waiting, the patience pays off.

Such was the case for Carolyn Day Potts, the mother of a 20-year-old son, who was stunned to learn last week that a $21,000 check for back child-support was in the mail.

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