In an announcement hailed by child support advocates around the state, Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday announced the appointment of legislative aide Curtis L. Child to oversee California's ambitious new Department of Child Support Services.
The long-awaited selection of Child, a 43-year-old former public interest attorney, completes the first phase of the Legislature's 1999 overhaul of California's beleaguered child support agency--one that this year has been not only reorganized but reinvigorated with a solid commitment of funding by Davis.
"There is no question that the governor looked at this as a critical appointment and wanted to make sure that he personally felt comfortable with the person he appointed because, for far too long, this system has failed California's children and California's families," said Davis Press Secretary Michael Bustamante.
"Curt is the most qualified person imaginable for the position," said Leora Gershenzon of the National Center for Youth Law.
Her remarks were echoed by legislators, who expect Child's appointment to the $118,514-a-year post to be easily confirmed in the state Senate.
Child could not be reached for comment.
"I have worked with Curt since I was elected in 1994 and have always been very impressed with the breadth of his knowledge and his innovation in finding solutions to child support problems," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), one of the principal architects of the reforms.
Added state Sen. President Pro Tem John Burton, who co-wrote the reforms: "This is truly a merit appointment, and now everybody is looking forward to getting this new department up and running."
The creation of the new state agency was just one of the reforms enacted over months by a Legislature that decided, after years of debate, to strip the program from the control of California's 58 district attorneys.
Under a structure that had been in place for years, local prosecutors were empowered to run county child support programs with minimal oversight from the state. The result was a program widely viewed as among the worst in the nation.
And in Los Angeles County, home to the nation's largest county-based child support program, the problems were acute and widespread.
An investigation by The Times found that the county failed to collect any current support in nine out of 10 cases, held on to millions of dollars that should have gone to families, and wrongly billed men for children who were not their biological offspring.
"In addition to failing families," said Davis spokesman Bustamante, "this system also has failed the dads."
But Richard Bennett, a lobbyist for a fathers' rights group, groaned when he heard of Thursday's appointment, citing Child's membership on the national board of the Assn. for the Enforcement of Support, which advocates increased payment of child support and frequently opposes Bennett's group.
"My fear is that with Curt in charge of this agency it's going to be rather one-sided," Bennett said. "He has always leaned very heavily in terms of the issues of child support recipients over child support payers."
He also questioned whether Child had the administrative experience to run a major state agency.
But that view was not shared by many current and former associates of Child, who described him as not only legislatively inventive but also eminently fair.
"There's nobody better to get the new agency up and running," said Child's former boss, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), who noted that Child was instrumental in pushing two measures which, for the first time, united fathers' rights groups and the national child support group ACES.
That milestone, Aroner said, was accomplished in a child support appeals bill signed by the governor and a new proposal that would forgive some child support debt.
"Curt has been a longtime advocate who has a good relationship with all the state officials, a firm grasp on the federal and state requirements . . . and understands this issue," said Nora O'Brien, California director of ACES.