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Cuts Imperil Child-Support Checks

Layoffs loom at county agencies as the state copes with budget gap. With fewer caseworkers, Southland collections could go from bad to worse.

June 08, 2003|Hugo Martin and Sue Fox | Times Staff Writers

Only three years after California overhauled its beleaguered child-support system, the state's budget crisis is expected to inflict layoffs, hiring freezes and spending cuts on agencies in some counties that already have among the state's worst records for collecting child support.

Anticipating a $40-million cut in funding to child-support agencies statewide, San Bernardino County, with a collection rate of 36%, has issued layoff notices to 60 child-support workers. In Los Angeles County, which collects just 32% of court-ordered child support, officials say they may cut as many as 300 child-support worker positions. San Diego County, with the state's worst collection rate at 31%, plans to put a staff expansion plan on hold.

Child-support workers and advocates decry the cuts under Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budget, saying they will lower collection rates, force more families to seek public assistance and cost the state more in the long run.

"Anything that reduces payments will harm children and increase child poverty," said Geraldine Jensen, president of the Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support, a national advocacy group based in Ohio. "It will only increase costs in every other social services agency in the state."

The expected cuts in child-support services are one of the many repercussions of the state's $38.2-billion budget shortfall that has prompted Davis to pass a hefty share of the pain onto the state's 58 counties. The deepest cuts, county officials say, may be felt by the poor, the handicapped, and those who rely on child-support services.

The governor's revised 2003-04 budget plan would withhold nearly $100 million from county mental health programs for children in special education. The programs are mandated by the state, so California must eventually pay the bill. But to conserve cash in the short term, the governor would delay reimbursing counties until the economy improves.

Davis' latest plan also assumes that vehicle license fees would be raised, bringing in an additional $4 billion per year. But even if those fees are increased, there may be a two- or three-month delay before the Department of Motor Vehicles starts collecting the additional revenue, said Pat Leary, a Sacramento lobbyist for the California State Assn. of Counties.

That prospect has cities and counties on edge. Many local governments rely on the license fees to fund public safety programs, and they fear that even a short gap in funding could deprive them of substantial revenue. Los Angeles County, for instance, could lose $63 million to $189 million, depending upon how soon the fee is increased.

For many Southern Californians, the state's budget crisis has real-life implications.

Michelle Cawley, a homemaker from Big Bear Lake, worries that the layoffs in the Department of Child Support Services of San Bernardino County could weaken her chances of collecting seven years of unpaid child support -- nearly $32,000, court records say -- from her ex-husband.

"That is going to hurt a lot of families that need their support," she said.

County child-support agencies help determine paternity, seek court orders demanding child support and attempt to collect. The agencies can ask a judge to garnish the wages of a delinquent parent, freeze assets, claim tax refunds and confiscate passports and driver's licenses.

Cawley, a hairdresser, had three children before her divorce in 1997. Even though her husband worked in the same town, she said she could not get him to make regular child-support payments. Soon after the divorce, Cawley said she moved into a ramshackle mobile home and relied on food pantries to feed her children.

Court records show that a judge issued a bench warrant against Cawley's ex-husband for failure to pay the money. San Bernardino County sheriff's officials confirmed that Cawley's ex-husband was arrested in April and released after two days in jail. He could not be reached for comment.

Cawley has remarried and had two more children with her new husband, who works at a lumberyard in Big Bear Lake. Had it not been for her new husband's tax refund, she said, they would not be able to enroll her oldest son, Jake, in Little League.

Cawley predicts the county's low collection rate will only worsen with additional staff layoffs.

"There are going to be nearly no collections," she said. "It's already bare bones."

Before 2000, the district attorney in each of the state's 58 counties was responsible for helping parents collect delinquent child support. But the individual counties lacked uniform regulations and had such poor records of collecting child support that the state stripped prosecutors of the responsibility.

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