California's child support collection system is on the verge of an unprecedented overhaul. That's good, given the woeful overall performance of the state's county district attorneys who have had control over collections. But the program's new state overseers face a huge task. If they aren't careful, this plan could fall prey to typical bureaucratic malaise.
The breadth of the problem is immense. A recent audit found that the state's own records had underestimated the backlog of uncollected child support by $1.6 billion, raising the total to $9.8 billion.
That's more than the gross domestic product of 75 nations. Small wonder that the call for drastic action has been so favorably received in the governor's office and in the Legislature.
The solution, crafted by Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), State Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) and others like Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) would strip the district attorneys of most responsibilities. Perhaps the most promising feature would expand the role of the efficient State Franchise Tax Board in handling delinquent collections. Gov. Gray Davis, who must sign the bill into law, considered the state tax agency's involvement essential.
The tax board would also be expected to roll out an effective statewide child support computer network to track collections. To date, California has failed miserably at that task.
The other major hurdle will be the creation of a new statewide Department of Child Support, as well as new child support departments in each California county. Sadly, it would be all too easy to duplicate the current unimpressive county bureaucracies, making them similarly ineffectual in working on behalf of parents who are owed child support.
There is good reason for concern. The state audit, for example, criticized the California Department of Social Services for failing to help the worst performers among the counties. And local governments, such as the Los Angeles County Supervisors, haven't been very good at prodding better performance.
As envisioned, the new state department would set rules and training standards for county workers, who would do the face-to-face work with custodial parents and their children. The few counties that have superior collection rates would be models for the rest.
This gargantuan task, if done right, could become a signature effort for Gov. Gray Davis, the Legislature and county governments, not to mention a model for the rest of the nation.
Taxpayers could certainly use the help. Fully one-third of the children owed child support are on the welfare rolls. Think about how much $9.8 billion could buy in housing, food, clothing, books, computer equipment and more and you'll understand how much 3 million of California children have been missing in their lives.