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Troubled Child Support Agency Gets New Chief

Reform: The operation got poor marks under district attorney's office. It now is stand-alone department.

July 04, 2001|GREG KRIKORIAN and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After years of substandard performance, Los Angeles County's child support program was put in the hands of a new director, selected unanimously Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors after a nationwide search.

The appointment of Philip Browning to the $155,000-a-year post closes one chapter in the long, troubled history of the county's child support program, the largest of its kind in the nation and long viewed as one of the worst.

"We needed a fresh voice of leadership and reason who could bring order to a troubled department," Supervisor Mike Antonovich said Tuesday.

Browning, who now heads Washington, D.C.'s child support agency, begins work Aug. 6.

"The Board of Supervisors has done the right thing by selecting Mr. Browning," said Jenny Skoble, who directs the child support program for the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law.

"I have high hopes that the appointment . . . signals the beginning of a new era for Los Angeles' child support system," she said.

Browning's selection also marks a new era in California's child support efforts. The state took the programs away from district attorneys, creating stand-alone departments under a new state Department of Child Support. The idea is to have uniform guidelines for all of California's 58 counties.

Browning was selected from among five candidates, including the longtime head of the county's program, Wayne Doss. Doss was on vacation and could not be reached for comment, a department spokeswoman said.

Browning said Tuesday that his new job "presents a challenge that is unequaled in child support across the country." Browning previously ran Alabama's program for five years.

With more than 500,000 cases, Los Angeles County has twice the caseload of Alabama's program. In addition, Browning said, his job will involve the added challenge of improving a county program amid statewide child support reforms.

He said he intends to work closely with Curt Childs, who heads California's new child support department, the county's staff and child support advocates.

"He impressed me in being a straight shooter and result-oriented," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said after Browning's appointment was announced. "His experience combined with his cool and focused demeanor is what the doctor ordered."

Supervisor Gloria Molina agreed, saying Browning will run the department "with the kind of integrity to stop some of the phones calls coming into our offices."

The state reforms came after an investigation by The Times that disclosed widespread failures in the Los Angeles County program. With more than 1,500 employees and an annual budget exceeding $100 million, The Times found, the agency failed to collect current support in more than 92% of its cases, held on to millions of dollars due families, and often charged the wrong men--even the dead--for child support.

After the state took action, Doss told local officials the county's program had improved. But as recently as last month, state officials warned that Los Angeles County's continuing deficiencies threaten to cost California tens of millions of dollars in federal funds.

"This brings closure to a troubling era where we did not have a district attorney or a department that was meeting the needs of the people," said Antonovich, who was long critical of Doss and former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.

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