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Senate Moves to End D.A.s' Role in Child Support

May 14, 1999|GREG KRIKORIAN and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a stunning bipartisan rebuke, the state Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill to strip California's district attorneys of their responsibility for collecting child support.

The bill by President Pro Tem John Burton and Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) to create a new statewide network of child support offices passed 29 to 1 after an emotional speech on the Senate floor in which Burton accused district attorneys of scuttling past reforms.

Calling the current system "a disgrace," Burton argued that if lawmakers treated district attorneys as if they were "a county coroner, tax collector or a county dogcatcher, we would take [their responsibilities] away from them in a heartbeat."

"As crazy as it sounds," Burton said later, "right now district attorneys are getting extra money for not accomplishing what they're supposed to in collecting child support."

Though it may have the toughest laws in the nation, California is considered to have one of the worst child support systems, with as much as $8 billion owed to single-parent families. And with 3 million children, most of them on welfare, relying on the program, it affects more children than any state program but public schools.

Critics say a key problem is that district attorneys collect child support at the county level, creating a fragmented network in which it can take months to get money from a debtor parent in one county to a family in another.

But prosecutors, who argue that collections are steadily improving and that they should keep the mammoth program--and the millions of dollars in federal grants that come with it--vowed to fight on to retain jurisdiction.

"It is important to bear in mind that the process is not over," said Larry Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn.

A spokesman for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, whose office runs the state's largest and, by most standards, worst child support program, said Garcetti believes prosecutors "can do this job better than anyone else."

Jim Provenza, a lobbyist for the district attorney, added, "But if the state wants to set up a separate county agency, [Garcetti] will not stand in the way."

As a parallel Assembly bill steamed toward a floor vote, the district attorneys association this week took what it acknowledged was an unprecedented step and hired former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg as lobbyist. Isenberg, who will be paid $8,000 a month plus expenses, is close to Gov. Gray Davis, who has not taken a formal position on the child support bills.

Davis' office did not return a call for comment Thursday, but Democratic leaders say they believe the governor recognizes the problems in the system. Yet some advocates remain wary of the district attorneys' political clout.

"The real work is just beginning," said Leora Gershenzon of the National Center for Youth Law. "The closer we get, the harder the fight is going to be."

But Schiff, the coauthor of the Senate bill, said he believes momentum is on the side of reform.

"I don't underestimate the influence the D.A.s have with the Legislature, but by the same token, I don't underestimate the profound dissatisfaction of the public," Schiff said. "I frankly think those voices are a whole lot louder than the district attorneys, and those are the voices I am listening to and the ones, I believe, the governor will listen to."

Added Nora O'Brien of the Assn. of Children for the Enforcement of Support: "There's more families owed support than there are D.A.s."

Low Rate of Collections

The influential California District Attorneys Assn. for years has killed efforts to remove child support from prosecutors' offices. But after a Times report last year showed how Los Angeles' program was both the state's largest and its worst, failing to collect money nine times out of 10 and annually billing thousands of men erroneously, legislators pledged wide reform.

Those efforts have leapt onto the fast track in Sacramento, as lawmakers have tried to outmaneuver district attorneys and restructure the program to lay the foundation for the state's third stab at building a statewide child support computer.

Two previous efforts to build the federally mandated system failed, with some critics blaming prosecutors for refusing to unify behind a single design. Federal penalties that began accruing this year could reach $4.7 billion, and legislators argue that building a unified computer first requires an overhaul of the state's fragmented child support network.

Burton has been pushing hard for his bill, killing an alternative proposal to keep the program with district attorneys and moving his proposal to the floor Thursday morning with surprising speed.

An Assembly bill by Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) that would also strip child support from prosecutors cleared its final committee Wednesday and backers are optimistic that it will pass the lower house next week.

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