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California and the West

Assembly OKs Restructuring Child Support

Legislation: Bill strips district attorneys of their role in the program. State would set up a system with greater accountability.

May 25, 1999|GREG KRIKORIAN and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In an landmark vote, the state Assembly on Monday approved a top-to-bottom restructuring of California's child support system, snatching the troubled program away from district attorneys and building a new operation with greater accountability and state oversight.

"I am thrilled," the measure's author, Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), said moments after her bill was approved 44-27. "I think this is the most important thing to happen to child support in California in 25 years."

Coupled with a similar bill that sailed through the state Senate two weeks ago, the passage of AB 196 was viewed by child support advocates and many legislators who have championed reforms as a historic moment.

"I think it is now very clear the Legislature is going to support statewide standards," said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who was among those to take the floor to urge support of Kuehl's bill. "And by taking it away from the district attorneys . . . we are registering our discontent with their performance."

Indeed, while the legislation has a number of components, it was the continuing involvement of California's district attorneys in child support that served as the dividing line between those who supported Kuehl's bill and those--most of them Republicans--who opposed it after an unprecedented lobbying efforts by prosecutors.

"How cynical is this?" Assemblyman Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) angrily asked, criticizing Kuehl's bill for shifting the authority for child support away from prosecutors while retaining the employees who currently work for those programs.

Like other opponents, Ashburn complained that Kuehl's bill treated prosecutors as scapegoats for California's dismal child support program, without making accommodation for district attorneys in some counties that are doing better than the rest of the state.

That argument has been increasingly used by the California's District Attorneys Assn. in it efforts to derail reforms that would strip the program from prosecutors. And while it did not stop Kuehl's bill from passage, CDAA's executive director Lawrence Brown said the margin of victory in Monday's vote proves legislators are having second thoughts about unilaterally stripping district attorneys from the program.

"As it gets closer to one of these bills becoming law, it is causing legislators to pause and take a closer look," Brown said.

But supporters of the bill, including longtime child support advocates, Assembly members Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) and Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), argued that focusing the debate on prosecutors misses the point.

"This is not a D.A.-bashing bill," Aroner told colleagues.

Rather, she and other supporters said the bill refocuses attention on a system that by most everyone's reckoning is broken.

"The issue is not the needs of the district attorneys. This is about the needs of the children," said Nora O'Brien, statewide director of ACES, a national child support organization.

Key provisions of the bill include:

* Elevating the status of the state's child support program by having the governor, on or before January, appoint an undersecretary for child support to oversee and manage the state's program.

* Creating a new state Department of Child Support Services by January 2001 to replace the Department of Social Services as the single state agency overseeing the program.

* Removing the district attorneys from authority over the child support programs beginning in March 2001 and completing the transition of all California counties by June of the following year.

While the statewide system currently owes about $8 billion to 3 million children, it was the particularly dismal performance of Los Angeles County's program that prompted the Legislature's reforms. Last year, a Times series revealed that Los Angeles County's child support office was the state's worst, failing to collect money in nine out of 10 cases and pursuing the wrong men thousands of times each year.

With the passage of Kuehl's bill, it is now up to lawmakers in both houses to review the legislation passed by the Assembly and the Senate to fashion a single bill that will be acceptable to Gov. Gray Davis.

"The district attorneys seem to believe they will be somehow able to pressure the governor," Kuehl said. "But I will do my best to convince the governor of the rightness of this approach, and it is very fortunate to have the Senate and the Assembly both wanting the same thing. That's a very strong message.

"And he knows we have to do something different," Kuehl said of Davis. "I know he does."

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