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County, State Both Get Blame on Child Support

Failure to Provide: Los Angeles County's Child Support Crisis. Last in a series.

October 13, 1998|NICHOLAS RICCARDI and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles County's child support failure is just a piece of a much larger puzzle.

The entire state of California for years has languished near the bottom of the nation in many categories of collecting child support. This year alone, an estimated 3 million children statewide will go without the money they are owed.

As the largest and by most measures worst county in California in collecting support, Los Angeles is blamed by many for pulling the state down in national rankings. But the only way to truly change Los Angeles' performance would appear to be to restructure the entire state system.

That prospect, for now, seems unlikely.

Past efforts to reform the state's child support system have been largely blocked by the powerful county district attorneys, whose agencies receive millions of dollars in incentive payments from the federal government.

"The question here is not whether the line workers and the local D.A.'s are working their tails off," said Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley). "But it doesn't seem to change how we're doing. At some point you say maybe we have to totally revamp what we're doing."

State officials charged with running California's child support system say that, although the program is still in need of improvement, it is moving forward after years of neglect.

"The future's brighter than it's [ever] been," said Leslie Frye, head of the state's child support office, which oversees the way district attorneys collect child support in their counties.

Not everyone at the state level agrees.

Tough Laws, Weak Record

California's watchdog Little Hoover Commission last year issued a scathing report on the child support program, noting the irony of a state with some of the toughest child support laws in the nation having such a poor track record.

"In recent years, the child support program has been bolstered by considerable federal and state legislation," the report said. "But given the possibilities and the imperative, the progress is anemic."

Another report, released Monday by a coalition of child support advocacy groups, says that although the amount of support collected has grown in the past five years, the amount of uncollected money has increased far more dramatically--from $3 billion in 1992 to $8.2 billion as of 1996.

"Overall, the state's child support program remains near the bottom of the nation, failing far more children than it helps," said the report issued by the National Center for Youth Law, the Child Support Reform Initiative and Children Now.

Those who want to reform the state's child support system can choose from several models across the nation.

Some states, like Texas and Florida, rely on a single agency to collect support--the attorney general and department of finance, respectively. Others, like Minnesota and New York, split the responsibility between several county agencies and rely on another bureaucracy in the state capitol to coordinate.

In some states, child support is a largely administrative process. In others, like California, it is run by county prosecutors who put the process in more of a judicial framework.

All states have one thing in common: They do not collect nearly enough of the money owed to children.

"Child support is not an easy business," said Robert Doar, who runs New York's program. "We are dealing with money and family, and those [things] will make people do the most mean-spirited things. . . . We have to have realistic expectations about what we can achieve."

Some states, however, are better than others for a variety of reasons, experts say--usually a mixture of demographics, management and structure.

Critics say California--especially Los Angeles County--lags in all three.

"California has one of the worst systems in the country," said Columbia University professor Irwin Garfinkel, a leading child support scholar. "The system is so localized . . . so county-based, it's almost like going from one state to another, [and] that probably by itself accounts for the relatively dismal performance."

The states that are most successful tend to have strong, centralized coordination, even if each county operates independently, said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

In its report, the Little Hoover Commission found that is not the case in California and contended that the Department of Social Services was "rewarding excuses rather than results."

The rewards come in the form of federal funds that flow to California from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Last year, spending by district attorneys across the state increased faster than the child support they distributed.

The Little Hoover Commission and the state's legislative analyst have criticized as deeply flawed the way the state Department of Social Services has for years evaluated the child support efforts of California's district attorneys.

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