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Commentary

The Child Support System Needs Resuscitation

Enforcement: L.A. County has bungled it to the point where a state takeover may be the next necessary step.

October 19, 1998|JANE PREECE | Jane Preece is directing attorney of the family law unit at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and vice chair of the Family Support Advisory Board

Last week's Times' articles on the dismal performance of the L.A. County district attorney's child support office highlighted a government failure that has festered for two decades. The Times investigation revealed what child support advocates have known for years: L.A. County has the worst child support office of the state's 58 counties and is probably the worst large child support office in the entire country.

L.A. County's child support office cannot perform even the simplest function, such as providing accurate accountings of child support owed. Any bank with as bad a record on servicing mortgage payments would be immediately closed.

As things stand, the arm of the government charged with enforcing the law can get away with actions that would send normal citizens to jail. It sends out false bills, collects money not owed, ignores court orders to reimburse citizens for money wrongfully taken and puts the wrong people in jail.

There is a lot of blame to spread around for the failure of the county's child support office. Certainly, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who oversees the child support system, has shown little concern about its effectiveness. To Garcetti, the office appears to be a cash cow that brings home millions in federal money.

Despite the operation's track record, Garcetti defends his current managers, who have been allowed to operate unimpeded for almost 10 years with disastrous results. Meanwhile, state officials have rubber-stamped Garcetti's failed operation in order to ensure that federal money keeps flowing. The federal government provides minimal oversight over the vast sums of taxpayer money it sends the state for child support enforcement.

While the government bureaucrats dawdle, children grow up in poverty, and lives are ruined. A drastic change is in order.

First, top management of the county's child support office must go. Unfortunately, replacing the current managers is complicated by a county charter provision in effect since 1913 that requires that only veteran prosecutors be named to these positions. This nonsensical provision requires that, in effect, a huge bureaucracy be run by professional lawyers whose experience in trying criminal cases is all but useless in running what is essentially a massive debt collection program.

A charter change, which would require a vote of the electorate, is in order, but the current crisis cannot continue until such a change is approved. Possible short-term solutions include putting the program into a receivership, creating a new chief position that would not be subject to the charter restrictions or having a different arm of the state or county government take over the operations.

But long-term changes must be made at the state level. Child support enforcement should be removed from the control of each county's district attorney and placed it in a state office whose only interest is in child support collection.

A child support collection system that is spread among all of California's counties is simply impractical. Parents being pursued for child support can often avoid their obligations by periodically moving across county borders. And district attorneys are elected based on their perceived ability to prosecute violent criminals, so they rarely focus their time or resources on their child support collections offices.

Currently, the district attorneys use tax dollars to hire lobbyists who vigorously oppose legislation removing child support agencies from their control. Faced with this powerful opposition, four recent legislative proposals to remove child support from the control of the district attorneys never even made it out of committee in Sacramento.

L.A. County has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation, due in part to the disastrous performance of its child support services. Children, parents and taxpayers are carrying the burden for the child support agency's incompetence. If Garcetti can't run a better operation, he should step aside and let the state do the job.

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