Support 'Check in Mail' Routine Gets Old

For The Times

The first time Anita's estranged husband told her the child-support check was in the mail, "I believed him," she said.

"He'd tell me, 'Go ahead, write out checks for your bills, go ahead and buy what you need, and you'll have the money in a couple of days.' "

After a few weeks passed and still no check, "he said the post office was putting a tracer on it, and when they tracked it down, I'd get my money. That sounded reasonable. Then the next time he showed up to pick up the kids, he said he couldn't find the (money order) receipt so they wouldn't do anything. When he took that attitude, that's when I finally realized he was lying. If his money was really lost in the mail, he wouldn't just let it go like that," said Anita, who lives in Orange.

For nearly a year after the couple separated in 1982, Anita's ex--she would rather not mention his name--made regular contributions toward the support of their 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

"Then his friends told him he didn't have to pay because there was no court order," Anita said she found out later. "That's when the checks started getting 'lost in the mail.' "

This week, we hear from mothers on the subject of child support. Next week, fathers will have a turn to tell their side of the story.

Anita's situation is typical, according to Susan Speir, founder of Single Parents United 'N Kids of SPUNK, a Southern California organization dedicated to addressing the child-support issue. "The average guy pays for about two years," Speir said.

Less than half the nation's divorced fathers (or noncustodial mothers) pay their court-ordered child support regularly, according to a 1985 report in the Juvenile and Family Court Journal. In 1981, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the figure was 47%. Roughly one in four paid nothing at all, and the rest made partial and/or irregular payments.

In Orange County, the district attorney's office had 36,746 active child-support non-payment cases in fiscal year 1985-86, according to a report obtained by SPUNK.

"And those were just the active cases," Speir said. "That represents only a fraction of the problem. You have to be owed several months' worth of support before they'll take your case. And a lot of people aren't even aware that the D.A.'s office will do anything."

During that same period, the district attorney's office took 4,154 "enforcement actions" against delinquent fathers. About half, 2,058, involved wage assignments, in which employers were ordered to take child support directly out of fathers' paychecks. Criminal charges were filed against 706 fathers, and 336 liens were placed against fathers' property.

In addition, 2,606 California and 3,427 federal income tax returns due Orange County fathers were intercepted and applied toward child-support debts.

Who pays when fathers don't? Some mothers take on extra jobs to make ends meet. Grandparents chip in. And so do taxpayers, Speir said. "Almost 90% of the people on welfare have absent parents who aren't paying child support. Orange County spent $82,616,000 on welfare in fiscal '85-'86, but they only recouped $9,397,000 from absent fathers.

"Child support is really everybody's problem," Speir said.

By the time Anita and her husband were divorced in 1984, she worked cleaning houses "to keep from having to go on welfare. The court ordered him to pay $300 a month for the children, but he didn't pay it."

In California there are no standard amounts for child-support orders; each case is decided separately. But in some states, such as Wisconsin, fathers are ordered to pay a flat percentage of their income. According to a 1985 Stanford University study, the average award in California was $126 per month for one child and $195 for two or more.

As Christmas approached that first year, Anita took on more cleaning work and got a job washing cars to earn money for gifts.

"There were times when the kids would want this or that, and I'd have to say, 'Look, your dad is not paying. I told my kids the truth. But he was telling them he was paying. He'd come and get them (for visitation), and he'd buy them all these things, take them to Disneyland. I was having to buy clothes for my kids, not toys."

Nearly two years ago, Anita opened a claim with the district attorney's office. "They made several attempts to get him to pay, threatened him that he'd go to jail by a certain date if he didn't pay, and then they'd give him an extension.

"I would be so frustrated. I'd go into a court hearing and think, OK, now you're going to have some money, or he's going to jail. But the jails in Orange County are so overcrowded, and they always let him go. One time he even had the money, and they didn't make him pay it. Somebody misread one of the papers on the case, and they let him go. By the time he was gone, they said there was nothing they could do. I cried my eyes out over that.

"Finally I learned not to count on it. If you do, it just destroys you emotionally. You just can't let it take control of your life. But I wasn't going to give up, either."

Last June, the district attorney successfully placed a wage assignment on her ex-husband's paycheck. Now she gets $300 each month, plus another $50 toward the arrearage.

"He was pretty cooperative about it," Anita said. "I told him, if you go ahead and go along, in the long run it will be better. Now he doesn't have to take care of this; someone takes care of it for him. And he doesn't have to be angry with me about it. There's still a lot of hostility there. I think that accounts for a lot of his behavior."

Since the money started coming regularly, Anita said she has been able to cut back on her working hours and spend more time with the children. "The stress level has gone way down," she said. But she hasn't relaxed completely. "If he changes jobs, I'll have to start this thing all over again."

Cherie, who lives in Irvine with her two daughters, ages 9 and 7, isn't the only one who's after her ex-husband for money. "The IRS just filed a judgment against him," she said. "I called them up and asked who came first, the IRS or his children. They said, 'We do.' "

Cherie and her husband were divorced four years ago, and he was ordered to pay $800 a month in child support. His payments have been sporadic, and now he is about $3,500 behind, she said.

"I think he's socially sick not to take care of his kids. I talked to a psychiatrist about it, and he related it back to my ex-husband's mother. I don't really know why. He said we raise girls to be responsible, to clean their rooms and learn how to cook. But boys are given everything, left to run around and play war games and be selfish," Cherie said.

"It's so horrible to have to call him up and ask for money. It's just degrading. I don't understand why men aren't thinking of their children. Where do they expect the children to get their next pair of shoes?

"Harping doesn't get me anywhere. I feel like the old fishwife. In a way, they make you that way because you're trying to be economical. I can't go out for meals. He even eats out for breakfast. He's had a trip to Spain, two trips to Mexico, and meanwhile he has owed me thousands. But he says, 'Oh, I don't have any money.' That's because he's spent it."

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