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California and the West

Prosecutors May Lose Their Child Support Duties

Reform: Assembly leaders say district attorneys have an 'abysmal record' and no incentive to do better. The entire system would come under a new state agency.

May 23, 1999|GREG KRIKORIAN and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Despite an unprecedented lobbying effort by district attorneys, the state Assembly is poised to approve sweeping child support reforms Monday that include removing the problem-plagued program from the control of California's prosecutors.

Just over a week after the state Senate agreed 29-1 to transfer authority for child support to new county agencies, Assembly leaders, including Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), said they too believe that lawmakers must remove the district attorneys as overseers of a system that affects more children than any government program except public schools.

"We're in a crisis," said Villaraigosa. "And I have no question we will get this [legislation] through."

Although California's District Attorneys Assn. has vigorously resisted the reform legislation--even enlisting former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg as an $8,000-a-month lobbyist--Villaraigosa said he and other Assembly members believe "we have no other recourse" but to strip the program from prosecutors.

"They have had an abysmal record over a long period of time," Villaraigosa said. And with government funds continuing for even the worst-run child support programs, the speaker said, prosecutors "have no incentives to do any better."

"Nobody is looking to be unfair to the district attorneys," said Villaraigosa, "but we have been grappling with this issue for years and we have seen no improvements."

Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said: "Even in the best performing counties, the numbers are terrible."

Kuehl's bill, like one overwhelmingly approved in the Senate, would not only strip the county programs away from local prosecutors but would put California's entire child support system under the auspices of a new agency with new--and strict--performance standards.

Child Advocates Back Plan

That approach, while strongly supported by longtime child support advocates, has not sat well with some legislators who believe that the system requires improvement, but not wholesale restructuring.

"Certainly we are not doing as good a job as we could be doing. . . . The question is what else will work better," said Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), whose district attorney has pushed to retain the child support program after making it a priority in his administration.

Assemblyman Dick Ackerman, (R-Fullerton) has said he would only support Kuehl's bill if it is amended to allow each county to decide if it wants to continue using its district attorney to collect child support.

"I'm a 'local control' person in general," said Ackerman, who added that centralizing California's programs--like education--can "just create more problems" than it solves.

"A lot of counties are doing a much better job than they were five or 10 years ago [in child support],"Ackerman said. "I think the district attorneys have made this a priority. It wasn't a priority for them before."

But with about $8 billion owed to 3 million California children, child support advocates say the state has waited too long for reform.

"The reason [some] legislators are waffling is exactly the reason this legislation has to be approved, because it is a result of the lobbying being done by district attorneys," said Kathryn Dresslar of the Children's Advocacy Institute.

"For 24 years, the district attorneys have had this program and not done the job, and now the debate is about political pressure, not performance," Dresslar said.

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