Raises in Child Support Are Praised and Criticized : Law: State levels were among the lowest, but many divorced parents say the higher payments ruin them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raymond Oliver, a 33-year-old Orange County animal control officer, has moved back with his parents in Garden Grove and is pondering bankruptcy to dig out from under debts he has amassed since his child-support payments nearly doubled last October.

A court boosted his payments from $350 to $670 a month for the divorced man's three children under a recent state law aimed at increasing California's child-support levels, which were among the lowest in the nation.

The law has been praised and defended by women's rights groups, divorced women with children, and many members of the legal community who say the long-awaited reform was desperately needed by the children of divorce--many of whom have lived in poverty.

"The amounts being awarded for child support now probably more closely reflect the actual cost that custodial parents are bearing," said Jan Sturla, deputy in charge of the Orange County district attorney's family support division, which collects child support for parents who receive funds under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program.

But Oliver sees it differently.

"I was victimized by the law," he said, contemplating his deep financial problems.

Oliver is among hundreds of divorced parents--mostly fathers--who angrily contend that the higher payments are ruining their standard of living, placing stress on second marriages and, in some cases, bankrupting them or forcing them to sacrifice their homes to foreclosure.

And, setting the stage for an emotional political battle in Sacramento, they are organizing throughout the state, including a new chapter in Orange County, to overturn the 10-month-old child-support guidelines.

"By and large, the average father still holds his children as his primary responsibility," said Dave Whitman of Bakersfield, president of Coalition of Parent Support, or COPS, which has 800 members statewide. "But he also must be able to survive himself, and the children of a second marriage must also survive."

The two sides will clash today, as the state Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing in Sacramento as a first step to determine if the child-support law should be changed.

Many divorced fathers and their new spouses say that the guidelines may have been well-intended, but that the pendulum has swung too far. They argue that the child-support awards are often so large that second families of divorced men are reduced to near poverty.

Making it so hard for men who are trying to pay, critics argue, also raises the risk that they may disappear into the already large crowd of "deadbeat dads" who neither see nor support their children.

"I as a second wife am put in a position that I have to work to support my stepchildren while the biological mother does not," complained Mission Viejo resident Linda Riley, president of COPS in Orange County.

There are already signs that hefty increases in child support are sending some financially stressed fathers into hiding.

"I am finding a lot of non-custodial spouses are moving back with mom and dad or disappearing into the woodwork," said Alex Logan, a Fullerton family law attorney who finds the new law "oppressive."

But supporters of the law maintain that, for every divorced father whose lifestyle is financially harmed by the larger awards, benefits are reaped by children from former marriages who are able to live more comfortably because of the greater support.

Family law judges and lawyers say that the new guidelines were intended to raise child-support payments by an average of 25%, although some awards under the formula go up by 45%.

On top of that, authorities say the guidelines have made it easier for ex-wives to request that courts recalculate old awards to reflect the improved income of former spouses and the rising cost of living. The combined effect sometimes doubles and triples the total court-ordered support payments.

Before the new guidelines went into effect last July, the parent with primary child custody had to show evidence in court of a "change of circumstance," such as an increase in the income of an ex-spouse, to have a child-support award modified. However, the new legislation in itself provides grounds for a custodial parent to seek an increased award under the new formula.

A forceful argument for hiking child-support awards was to reduce the amount of money the state pays in aid to dependent children.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sturla said his agency is gradually requesting the court to modify the thousands of child-support cases it administers, and the higher awards are helping to offset the county's welfare costs.

He said that last year the district attorney collected about $15 million in child support, and he expects that the larger awards this year may increase the amount by 15%.

Still, even some supporters of the guidelines admit there are flaws.

One concern is that the new guidelines too greatly limit judicial discretion in determining the size of child-support awards.

Judge Nancy Wieber Stock, a former Orange County family law judge and a member of the Judicial Council advisory committee for family law, said that although the current law already has been amended to give judges more leeway, she still feels they are too restricted.

A uniform guideline was adopted for California under a 1990 federal mandate, so that child-support awards would not vary from county to county. However, Stock said parents on both sides of a divorce "have legitimate complaints that they shouldn't be formula people, but real people."

Salvador Sarmiento, a family law attorney in Santa Ana, said the formula most severely affects a divorced father who is a low wage earner and must pay child support to a former wife who is not working.

"The difficulty is when you have a low-wage earner and have to split one income into two, you wind up having two families with not enough income to survive," he said.

Some lawyers say the higher awards have also heated up battles over child custody and visitation rights, since a non-custodial parent can pay less support for children if he or she simply spends more time with them.

Already a number of bills have been introduced in the state Legislature to amend the guidelines to make them easier on non-custodial parents. One bill would require a phasing in of court-ordered child-support increases of 50% or more, and another would eliminate the income of second spouses in child-support calculations.

Already, opposition to such proposed changes has begun to galvanize.

"If they alter (the current law) or new bills go through that, say, don't consider second-spouse income, then dad will be able to live better than his children from his first marriage," objects Holly Hoyt, coordinator of the California chapter of the national Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support.

Patricia Wynne, counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, said opinion about the existing child-support law is sharply divided.

"People are absolutely ecstatic about it and absolutely furious about it," she said.

Among those furious are Jim Glass and his second wife, Minerva.

Glass, a security guard at Disneyland, said he was shocked in September when a judge nearly tripled the monthly payment he must make to his ex-wife to support their two boys, from $300 to $899. This equals more than half of his monthly take-home pay of $1730.

Glass said Minerva also works at Disneyland, as a merchandise marker.

"Basically we work and work to support those two boys," Glass said. "We don't go out to movies, on vacations or even to dinner." And the couple budgets no more than $20 a week for gasoline, enough to drive together from their Anaheim home to their work at the nearby theme park. "Before, we could take a drive to the coast, but now we don't have the gas money to do it," Glass said.

His former wife, Barbara Glass, acknowledged that more child support has made life easier for herself and her sons. Glass said she had struggled to raise her sons on $300 a month in child support since her divorce 12 years ago, without getting even a cost-of-living raise.

Glass, who earns about $28,000 a year as an accounts receivable clerk, said she has used the increased child support to buy the boys clothes and bicycles and to pay for their extracurricular sports programs.

They are also eating better now, she said, noting that previously the family rarely could afford orange juice. "We couldn't have a turkey on Thanksgiving unless we won it or someone gave it to us," she said.

The Judicial Council, the administrative branch of the state court system, is reviewing the operation of the state's child-support law. "We really don't know what the typical case is," said a council spokesman.

Drew Liebert, legislative aide to state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), who authored the existing child-support legislation, said he has seen the angry letters from the COP group.

"They are very organized and we certainly respect the depth of their feelings," Liebert said. "But we try to remind everybody what we are talking about here is an overall state policy, and California should not accept being at the bottom of the basement in child-support levels."

Letters aren't the best barometer of how a law is working, Liebert said. "Angry people write their legislators. Children do not."

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