One Orange County mother says she knows what to do when her family's child support check doesn't come: "We eat lots of beans and peanut butter."
But such belt-tightening is only a short-term solution, and a partial one at that. What can custodial parents do when the money doesn't come for weeks, months, even years at a time?
There are people, organizations, attorneys and government agencies that parents can turn to for help, says Cheryl DeKeyser, a member of Single Parents United 'N' Kids (SPUNK), a child-support advocacy group.
But none of them can offer a guaranteed solution, and each alternative has its drawbacks, she says.
DeKeyser, a custodial mother who is fighting a continuing child support battle, spends a sizable chunk of her spare time advising other parents, mostly mothers, in similar situations.
"We always tell people, 'No one cares as much about your case as you do,' " she says. "That's really important. No matter where you go for help, a lot of it is going to depend on you."
The family support division of the Orange County district attorney's office is where thousands of mothers go for help. The agency, which does not charge for its services, had 38,768 active files as of Dec. 31, 1987, according to Edna Sage, a staff development specialist and spokeswoman for the office.
Those cases are divided into just 46 caseloads, giving each case worker an average of 843 files to handle.
"Our services are available to all Orange County residents who have a child residing with them," Sage says. "All we have to have is a child not being supported. A court order is not necessary. Our general rule of thumb is that if a child is receiving less than $100 a month, he is not being adequately supported.
"We can open a file under various circumstances, but normally we do it when the absent parent is one month in arrears. That's not in concrete, however."
After a file is opened, the district attorney's office can take several approaches to getting money from the absent parent. Wage assignments are the easiest and most popular method, Sage says. And with a state law that took effect last year, wage assignments are even easier. "If they (the custodial parent) can tell us where a person is working, we'll do a wage assignment immediately. With the new law, there doesn't have to be an arrearage."
Wage assignments have increased dramatically since the new law went into effect, Sage says. In 1984, her office had 40-50 wage assignments each month, contrasted with 175 to 200 each month now.
"Our goal right now is to get a wage assignment in every case we can," Sage says.
Under a wage assignment, the absent parent's employer is ordered to deduct the child support from his employee's paycheck and send it directly to the court. "Usually, we can have money within a month," Sage says.
Her office will also try to find absent parents, file liens on real estate and levy against other property such as cars and bank accounts.
"We will levy on just about any asset," Sage says. "The other day, we had a father who was arrested who had a lot of cash with him, and we even took the money in his pockets."
If a state lottery winner owes back child support, the district attorney's office can intercept the money, as it can with state and federal tax refunds. "If the parent is receiving unemployment compensation, we can automatically take one-fourth of it," Sage says.
In cases where the parents are not married, her office can take steps to establish paternity and get an order for support. And if an absent parent lives in another state, Sage says, her office will initiate actions in that state to collect the money. That's true even if the divorce took place elsewhere.
"Where the orders take place is the least of our concern," she said. "If they (the custodial parent) live in Orange County now, we'll try to help them."
Private attorneys pursuing back child support cases for their clients also use her office's services in some cases. "Sometimes they just want the absent parent located, or a tax refund intercepted, which is something only we can do," Sage says.
But most of the actions that can be taken by her office take time, Sage says, and frustrated parents in need of money don't always understand that. "Sometimes people will come to us, and this person hasn't paid support in years, they don't know where the person is, and they expect us to get money immediately."
When all else fails, the district attorney's office can also send delinquent parents to jail, five days for each month of arrears under a civil contempt-of-court charge or six months to a year under criminal charges.
"But that's a last resort," Sage says. "We don't want that; we want money. We will give this person every chance in the world to pay before that happens. It costs the taxpayers money."
In many cases--48% of the district attorney's cases involve families on welfare--the taxpayers are already paying for the children. "This way the taxpayers are not only supporting the children, but the parent.
"Some people do go to jail, however," Sage says. "I saw three go to jail yesterday, for example."
Private attorneys are another alternative, but most charge for their time--up to $150 an hour--even if money is not collected, so already-strapped custodial parents can't always afford that option.
But some attorneys will pursue delinquent parents on a contingency basis, with the provision that they can keep as much as half of the money collected.
One such agency, Women and Children First, has opened in Costa Mesa. "There are many fathers who hide their assets from ex-wives, pay what little support they do with cashier's checks or money orders, and keep their families in the dark as to the full extent and whereabouts of their assets," says Leslie Kennedy, the agency's administrator.
"Often these individuals get sloppy, and assets are located. We quietly locate assets and levy upon them before the delinquent ex-spouse knows that we are even looking."
Women and Children First charges an initial retainer of $40 and 30% of all money collected. "A lot of family-law attorneys don't want cases like this," Kennedy says. "The chances of collecting may be good, may be bad, and they just don't want to be bothered. With wage garnishments, especially. Lots of times, a client hires an attorney, gets the wages garnished, and then he quits six months later and they're back to square one.
"We prefer to go after assets: the car, the real estate, the RV, the boat, the bank account. If we can find it, we take the property and sell it. Some of these guys, when they find their house or their car being sold, they might just find a way to come up with the money."
The best time to deal with the issue, says Santa Ana family law attorney Allen R. McMahon, is when the divorce takes place. "Make sure you have accurate figures to give your attorney, and make sure they get to the judge, because he'll make his decision based on the net incomes of both parties," McMahon says.
The judge is required to follow guidelines and mandatory minimums established in 1984 by the California Assembly, according to Gary B. Eaton, a Placentia attorney.
During and after the divorce, McMahon says good record-keeping is a must. Both parents should keep accurate records of their own incomes and of support paid.
DeKeyser agrees: "I was always penciling figures. I knew almost to the penny what the kids cost me. Anything that had to do with them, I wrote it down. I knew when I bought them an ice cream cone, or when they were invited to a birthday party and had to bring a gift."
But McMahon says the non-custodial parent shouldn't ask how the money is being spent: "Don't expect an accounting dollar for dollar of what the money is going for. That's not what child support is about. It's supposed to be thrown into the general fund of the custodial parent, for rent, gas for the car, etc. It doesn't all go directly to the child."
McMahon says custodial parents who don't complain about missed payments are making a mistake: "Don't let him get into a whole bunch of arrears. Remind him, hopefully not by screaming, but by sending a note. Try to stay on good terms. It's always better to get some money than no money."
SPUNK advises its members to take responsibility for their own cases, even if they have private attorneys working for them. The group also urges custodial parents to educate themselves about new legislation that could affect them, and to "write letters to anyone and everyone. Do not let a week pass without making a phone call or writing a letter," a SPUNK leaflet urges.
When circumstances change, either parent can ask for a change in the child support order by filling out a "modification of support" form, available at the forms window of the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, McMahon says.
That form can be especially important to non-custodial parents who lose their jobs or are unable to pay for some other reason.
"If you become unemployed, you should file immediately, rather than just letting it go, because by law the judge can only make it retroactive back to the date of filing," says Rod Bivings of the Santa Ana-based United Fathers Organization of America.
McMahon agrees: "I have not yet ever been in court representing a guy out of work that they didn't grant him relief. And they never ask, how can you afford this expensive lawyer?"
Sage says it's also important to keep in touch with the district attorney's office: "No one ever gets arrested and thrown in jail if they do. Look for a job, furnish proof that you're looking. Anyone who is willing to work with us, we work with them."
Tony Testa of Fathers United for Equal Justice, another county-based fathers organization, says courts have little patience with fathers who don't "mind their Ps and Qs."
"We try to make our guys aware of what this responsibility is," Testa says. "Understand a little bit about the law. It's not that difficult.
One thing non-custodial parents should never do is withhold child support because they are being denied visitation, Testa says:
"There's a whole list of things you can ask the court to do for you. And the court is understanding if the court sees that you're making a reasonable effort to meet your obligation. But it gets a little short with people who have to be hauled in before (the judge) to be told common sense. When you deal with your responsibility in a lackadaisical manner, the court automatically becomes a little bit testy with you."
Some fathers or non-custodial mothers just don't want to pay child support, even if it means paying a lawyer as much or more. "I've seen people like that," McMahon says, "(though) none that will admit it. If I get the idea that's what they're trying to do, I suggest they find another lawyer.
"I had a guy in here today, he didn't want to pay, and I said, 'You're not giving this to her, you're giving it to your children. Child support is your moral obligation, as well as your legal obligation.' When I say that, they usually hang their head a little and say, 'Yeah, yeah, I know that.'
"Can he get out of it? In the long run, no. I don't think he can even stall it that much. If that was ever possible, it isn't any longer. There are a lot of new judges, younger, intelligent, compassionate, and it's hard to snow them. In a lot of cases the judge was a lawyer not too long ago, and he was pulling all the tricks you're trying to pull. It doesn't work."
CHILD SUPPORT ASSISTANCE & INFORMATION
Orange County District Attorney, Family Support Division: (714) 667-3600
SPUNK: (714) 854-3147 or (213) 598-9206
Fathers United for Equal Justice: (714) 542-3100
(Or attend workshop Jan. 28, 7 p.m., at the Santa Ana Main Library, 26 Civic Center Plaza, Santa Ana)
United Fathers Organization of America: (714) 542-5624
Women and Children First: (714) 546-8002