California, a state that has long harbored one of the worst records for collecting child support payments, this week will extend the reach of its highly successful pilot collection program and begin tapping into deadbeat parents' wages nationwide.
The expanded program, to be announced Monday by Controller Gray Davis, authorizes collection agencies to garnish wages to support children in six California counties even if the parent has moved out of state.
The California wage-garnishing pilot program, launched five months ago, has collected $11.2 million and is being reviewed by the Clinton Administration for possible inclusion in the President's new welfare program, according to Carol Thorp, spokeswoman for the controller's office.
The expanded program's aim is to take in $103 million from 11,600 targeted parents living outside the state--a particularly intransigent group, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Nearly a third of child support cases involve out-of-state fathers, who turn over only 10% of the child support money collected, the GAO said.
California's pilot program has district attorneys forward the toughest collection cases to the state's Franchise Tax Board, which then taps computer databases also used to collect delinquent state taxes--databases that can ferret out virtually anyone with a Social Security number.
Although district attorneys must go to the courts to garnish any wage or income, a process that often takes a year or longer, the tax board is able to tap wages immediately. So far, 12,000 families, most of them in Los Angeles County, have benefited from the program, and a majority of the cases referred to the tax board have resulted in payments, the controller spokeswoman said.
"California is still in the backwaters of child support," Davis said, acknowledging the state's hefty $3 billion in unpaid court-ordered child support payments. "But our new program is a model for the nation," he said, adding that it is aimed at reducing the state's burgeoning welfare rolls.
The pilot program is operating in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Clara, Fresno, Solano and Nevada counties, but legislation introduced into the Assembly last week would expand it statewide.
A White House task force on welfare reform has said that only $13 billion is collected in child support in the United States each year, although the potential exceeds $47 billion. And census figures show that about a quarter of women eligible for child support receive the full amount they are owed.
California has long been a golden state for parents who don't want to pay child support. Although most states do little to force scofflaw parents to meet their obligations, California has one of the least effective child support systems in the country, a 1992 report by Children Now, a California advocacy group, found. In 1990, it said, only 39% of child support orders tracked by district attorneys resulted in any payment, a figure that has improved somewhat since then. In Los Angeles County, only 37% of the support ordered in 1987 was paid, a figure that dropped to 34% by 1990, the study said.
A 1991 study by the House Ways and Means Committee gave the state an overall grade of D and ranked it 47th in the country in several key indicators of how effectively its child support program was run.
Fathers make up 93% of the child support scofflaws in the state.
"If they use the greater resources of the tax system to identify where people are, it becomes much easier to get a collection," said Joseph Liu, director for policy at Children Now, adding that district attorneys offices that are overwhelmed dealing with violent crimes often do not aggressively push child support prosecutions or they lack the tax board's tools and records to track down parents. Prosecutions have been stepped up, in part for fiscal reasons: California's welfare system through court actions recovered about $300 million in payments in fiscal 1993. About half of the money collected by the pilot program is returned to the government to reimburse it for past welfare payments.
Los Angeles mother Valencia Robins said she was unable to get any child support payments through the district attorney and was reduced to living in a Torrance homeless shelter for two months with her daughters, 4 and 1, then went on welfare. The daughters' father, a professional rapper, would not pay child support, she says. The state's tax board was able to find his bank account and collect $105,000 in child support payments, of which about $20,000 went to reimburse the government for past welfare payments to Robins.
"They changed my life. I don't have to worry about where the kids' next meal will come from," said Robins, 24, who is now taking courses to prepare for nursing school.
California has used other techniques to battle the problem. It has begun denying professional licenses to child support delinquents and last year required that all hospitals offer fathers the option of signing birth certificates, a measure that helps to establish paternity.
Other states have tried other techniques: A Massachusetts initiative called the "10 Most Wanted" project hangs posters with mug shots and the names of 10 child support delinquents on billboards and in subways in an effort to shame people into paying up.
But other states have balked at the increasingly assertive measures, raising concerns that tougher measures give the government too much power and that some approaches only drag men who owe child support into poverty.
Idaho's lawmakers this year killed a bill that would have revoked driver's licenses of those who failed to make child support payments.