By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
Critics of California's child support collection process offer two primary solutions to improve the state's performance and reduce the number of cases like Michael Brock's and Theresa Stewart's. First, they say, the state should scrap the current, fragmented system, which is based in 58 different counties, and replace it with a single, statewide collection program. Second, they say, cases should be shifted from the courts into a streamlined administrative system. President Clinton hopes to implement elements of both proposals nationally and has included them in his welfare-reform package, which is stalled in Congress, a likely victim of election-year politics.
The federal impasse aside, both unified collection and administrative enforcement systems have been successfully implemented in other states. Massachusetts, ranked 15th in the country in child support collection, bases its operation in the state Department of Revenue, the equivalent of California's Franchise Tax Board. This allows Massachusetts to coordinate its efforts and pursue deadbeat dads with the same tools used to track tax evaders.
"Sometimes it scares me how efficient Massachusetts is," says Paula Roberts, a senior attorney who specializes in welfare and family law at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. "If someone is a day late on their child support payment, the computer checks their tax records, puts a lien on their property, and freezes their bank account. It all happens automatically."
Simply moving from one county to another in Massachusetts doesn't throw sand in the collection gears -- as it so often does in California. A central computer keeps track of fathers by monitoring when they get a new job, buy or sell property, or apply for welfare or unemployment.
"It would be very difficult to operate on a county-by-county basis, even in a small state like ours," says Allison Green, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. "It would be like handling out-of-state cases all the time."
California officials don't agree that child support collection should be removed from the purview of the state's separate District Attorney's offices.
"Local government can provide the best services for its constituents," says the Office of Child Support's Leslie Frye. "I do not believe there is any evidence anywhere in any state that proves a single, statewide system automatically does a significantly better job."
Frye contends that Massachusetts has done a better job of promoting itself than actually collecting child support. When asked why Massachusetts ranks higher than California in performance if its program is all sizzle and no steak, she recites her mantra: California's caseload is overstated to the federal government because of flawed record-keeping.
Instead of creating a centralized system, California hopes that a statewide computer system mandated by the federal government will link together the various county operations, eliminating duplicate cases created when a family moves from one county to the next. Officials claim that the system change will dramatically improve collections.
But the Statewide Automated Child Support System (SACSS) has already run into trouble. Originally slated to be up and running by October 1995, the implementation deadline has been pushed back to 1997. The total cost of the system has climbed from $152 million to $260 million since 1994. Despite the big price tag, children's advocates flatly declare that it won't come close to duplicating a centralized system -- if it works at all.
"SACSS has become this huge excuse in California, but it simply won't be the cure-all state officials claim it will be," Roberts says. "They still won't have a truly unified computer system. They are setting up 58 independently developed computer systems in the different counties, with plans to link them together. It's not a smart way to set up a system, and I doubt the state will meet the 1997 deadline."
Even when SACSS is operational, California's decision to handle child support issues in state courts will be a liability. The experience of Washington state shows why.
There, the child support system has used an administrative process to establish child support orders and enforce them since 1971. It helped Washington earn the second-best overall ranking in the country for child support collection last year.
Administrative hearings are easier to navigate than the more formal court procedures California uses to enforce child support orders. Parents often are more comfortable with the administrative process; it reduces the need for expensive private attorneys. And it all but eliminates court action.
Washington administrators report that less than 1 percent of administrative child support rulings are appealed to court. Administrative hearings allow child support caseworkers to quickly secure orders for tax liens, bank withholdings, wage garnishments, and even personal property seizures when deadbeat dads -- and moms -- don't pay.
"The administrative system has been invaluable to our success," says Joe Mitchell, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. "In fact, it's the single biggest reason for our success."
In addition to being faster, the administrative process is cheaper for states and counties. The federal government picks up two-thirds of the tab for Washington's administrative system because it's used solely to collect child support. In contrast, California gets no federal handouts to cover the cost of taking child support action in Superior Court.