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Demand Outstrips Child-Support Enforcement : Justice: Swamped agencies can find only a fraction of the parents who refuse to pay or acknowledge paternity.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

There are days when the telephone in Lynn Selfe’s child-support enforcement office never stops ringing. And nearly everyone who calls is angry.

She hears from single mothers who wouldn’t be facing eviction if they could only get their child support, and from fathers mad about being tracked down and ordered to write their children a check.

Like child-support enforcement officials across the country, Selfe and her staff are pulled into the struggles of single mothers trying to make it on their own, caught on the emotional battleground of parents fighting over money, visitation and custody.

And they are overwhelmed.

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Nationwide, public child-support agencies are so swamped with requests for help that they are able to find only a fraction of the parents who refuse to pay or acknowledge paternity, leaving welfare and poverty as the only alternative for some single mothers and their children.

Nationally, only one-fifth of the 17 million families in the public child support system--a system that is growing more than 1 million families a year--collects a child-support check.

In Virginia, the Division of Child Support Enforcement does a little better, delivering a check to nearly one-fourth of all families.

Agency employees answer more than 4 million phone calls a year and juggle the needs of 355,000 families, a number that is rising by 2,500 a month.

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Mike Henry, director of the Division of Child Support Enforcement, figures if the agency’s 400 front-line caseworkers were to spend time on every family, they could devote only 10 minutes a month to each.

But it doesn’t work that way.

“Every time you pick up a case file, it takes 45 minutes to all day,” said Pat Addison, a program specialist in the agency’s Richmond headquarters.

So caseworkers spend their time on new cases--where the trail has yet to grow cold--or helping mothers in desperate straits who need the money just to avoid foreclosure, homelessness or welfare.

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“The one who’s screaming and yelling, jumping up and down, she’s the one where we’re trying to put the fires out,” said Selfe, a child-support enforcement supervisor in the Henrico County district office.

A computer automatically checks the rest, searching for evidence that a non-paying parent is working and earning money that could be used to support his or her children.

The automated system works when the absent parent is employed in Virginia’s mainstream economy. But some parents, nearly all of them fathers, are hard to find: they are hiding out across state lines or working underground with assumed names, false Social Security numbers, and no bank accounts.

“Some spend more money moving around than if they would just pay,” Addison said.

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The Republican-controlled House will take up reform of the child support system this spring, after it finishes its welfare overhaul, according to an aide to the House Ways and Means Committee. The Clinton Administration also proposes to reform child support collections as part of its plan to revamp welfare.

Among the issues to be addressed in 1995 are efforts to improve automation and whether there are enough caseworkers to do the job.

Caseworkers today spend their time trying to track down the absent parents and to find out where they may be working. They call banks and credit bureaus. They check state employment, vehicle and tax records. They sift through phone books and search for relatives, friends and past employers who may lead them closer to the man and his money.

But they don’t have time for the simplest of collection techniques: calling or writing the absent parents and reminding them to pay up, Henry said.

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And some mothers, because they can’t get child support, lose their homes or go on welfare, and vent their frustrations on child support workers.

“It’s emotionally strenuous,” said Maiszie Holmes, a support enforcement specialist in the Henrico County office.

“A lot of custodial parents are really desperate--desperate for money, desperate for food, desperate for living expenses,” said Kathie LaLonde, the district office manager.

David Gray Ross, who oversees the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in Washington, said public child support agencies across the country are wrestling with similar problems.

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He estimates that caseworkers average about 900 different families in their portfolios.

“Nationwide, we do not have enough people involved,” said Ross, a former family court judge in Prince George’s County, Md. “That is going to have to increase, but we have to also recognize that we can do a lot more through the computer than we’re doing now.”


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