Deadbeat Heaven

Parents who refuse to pay child support don't have much to worry about in California. Or, for that matter, San Francisco.

Michael Brock has told his story before. He's recited it to friends, caseworkers, therapists, lawyers, and judges. He's gone over it in his own mind countless more times. After so many tellings, there are no emotional pyrotechnics when Brock explains how he gained custody of his two sons after they were abused by their mother and her boyfriend, a convicted child molester. He's surprisingly calm as he describes his fruitless attempts to collect child support payments from her. Brock doesn't even raise his voice when he declares that San Francisco's Family Support Bureau -- the division of the District Attorney's Office responsible for collecting child support -- has done little or nothing to help him. But there's no mistaking the role it all plays in his life.

"My whole existence revolves around it," says Brock, a tall, placid 44-year-old who exudes more weary resignation than anger as he sits in the living room of his small Richmond apartment. "It's like a tick that keeps coming back to bite you. It never goes away. It's so frustrating."

Brock's two boys are teen-agers now, but he still has what he refers to as his "baby." In a hall closet off the landing of his second-floor walk-up, Brock meticulously stores the documents that chronicle years of legal wrangling and emotional turmoil. He's saved every shred of paper connected with his case.

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"It may look disorganized," Brock says gesturing toward the boxes of legal documents, "but I know exactly what's in there."

The fact that Brock is trying to collect child support from the mother of his children makes his tale unusual; it's almost always the man who isn't paying up. But the complaints Brock levels against the Family Support Bureau and the collection process in California are all too familiar to advocates fighting to change a system they deride as fundamentally flawed.

"If you were going to design a system to fail, you could use California as a model," says Barbara Grob of the Child Support Reform Initiative in San Francisco. "It's completely fragmented into 58 different counties; it doesn't use a centralized state agency to collect the money; and the whole process gets bogged down in the courts because California doesn't use a cheaper, faster administrative system to handle cases."

A scathing report released in May by the National Center for Youth Law, Children Now, and the Child Support Reform Initiative shows the consequences of California's approach. Using data provided by each county, "Past Due: Child Support Collection in California" reveals that payments were collected for only 13 percent of children in the child support enforcement system during the 1994-95 fiscal year. That means 3.1 million kids got no support at all. Zero.

The average amount collected added up to a paltry $380 per year for each single-parent family being served by child support enforcement -- a sum nearly 30 percent lower than the national average. With more than $5 billion in uncollected child support, California was rated ahead of just six states in the report. And taxpayers pay for this bureaucratic incompetence: Most families turn to welfare to compensate for child support that doesn't arrive.

Although the report ranked San Francisco 19th out of California's 58 counties in child support enforcement efficiency, the county's performance is nothing to crow about. The Family Support Bureau took in $22.5 million for the 36,898 families on its official caseload. That averages out to a monthly payment of $34 for each child in a typical family. It's barely enough to buy a pair of shoes, let alone feed a 10-year-old for an entire month. And that's the average monthly payment; most kids didn't get any money at all.

"I get calls every week from women who are struggling to feed their children because they aren't getting a dime of child support," says Edith Pacumio, who founded a San Francisco/San Mateo County chapter of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. "These women get no help from the bureau. They feel like there is no one out there to help them."

Despite these complaints, California officials blithely maintain that the collection process is on the right track. Rather than embrace calls to centralize the system and move cases out of the courts, Leslie Frye, who runs the California Office of Child Support, circles the bureaucratic wagons. She blasts the "Past Due" report, claiming it paints an unfair picture of the collection job district attorneys are doing.

The report is junk, Frye reasons, because it's based on an inaccurate, bloated caseload count. The statewide caseload is vastly inflated, she says, because the same case can be listed in several California counties, and there is no record-keeping system to delete those duplications.

And who oversees the tally of caseloads from various counties and reports the total to the federal government?

Leslie Frye.
"We recognize that the recording of our total caseload data is flawed," Frye admits. "To be perfectly frank, it's not an area that we put a lot of energy into. And the caseload is what all the comparisons with other states are based on. Our true caseload -- which is much lower -- would make us look much better compared to other states."

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