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D.A. Needs Solutions, Not Excuses

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti now has 20 calendar days to present a plan to improve woeful child support collection efforts. Too bad he didn’t get an early start by forgoing his 45-minute, bluster-filled rant before the county supervisors Tuesday.

Let’s get the Garcetti defense out of the way. It goes something like this. His critics are “wrong, absolutely wrong.” Outsiders just can’t grasp the difficulties of his incredibly complex mission. His valiant employees “not only talk the talk, but they do more than walk the walk. They run the run.”

There was a little meat in the D.A.'s comments: Garcetti is willing to transfer some child support functions to other county agencies. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was able to extract that from him. Garcetti said he “would like to listen” to ideas. That’s very good. Under state law, child support enforcement powers go to local prosecutors; a change in that authority currently is possible only with the consent of the district attorney.

The facts? Los Angeles has one of thepoorest-performing child support collection units in the state. Garcetti’s staff fails to collect support in nine of 10 cases. It even holds onto millions of dollars of collected support payments that should go to families. Garcetti’s office uses flashy hardball tactics on impoverished men, including some who his office knows are not the biological fathers.

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So, what should happen? Options abound, including state receivership, should the county continue to stumble so horribly.

Twenty states have already decided to privatize their child support operations. This is an option that Los Angeles County should assess, although state legislation might be required and improvement wouldn’t be guaranteed.

In Maryland, the state put Baltimore’s support collections in the hands of the Lockheed Corp., a major defense contractor that has redefined itself in the 1990s. In that city Lockheed Martin IMS operates the nation’s largest privatized child support office. The firm has been pushing to take over complete welfare programs in Texas and Arizona too. Lockheed Martin also runs child support collection efforts in five states, including Arizona.

However, a first-year report in Baltimore found Lockheed falling short of the expected improvement. And it should not be forgotten that in California Lockheed Martin was dumped after the cost of its statewide computer system to track child support payments ballooned from $99 million to $277 million.

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In some areas across the nation collection efforts have been transferred to county tax departments. And Virginia is conducting a noteworthy experiment: two government-run child support offices are being compared with two private collection efforts in similar demographic areas.

For his part, Garcetti should consider any and all options. Since the child support collections operation is hardly coveted in the district attorney’s office, one wonders why he is so adamant about holding on.

The D.A. can cooperate now, for the benefit of needy children throughout Los Angeles, or he can let the county supervisors and state take the lead. Fortunately, the choice is not entirely up to him.


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