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Child Support Collections Are up 16.2% in County

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Child support collections in Ventura County took a sudden jump last year, increasing $6.2 million over the previous 12 months, officials said Monday.

The district attorney’s office collected $44 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, a 16.2% increase.

The dramatic improvement--collections rose 4% annually in the preceding two years--comes as district attorneys across the state are under pressure to improve their performance or be stripped of the program.

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“This is great news,” said Greg Totten, chief assistant district attorney. “This means we’re headed in the right direction.”

Stan Trom, who heads the district attorney’s Child Support Division, credited the strong economy and better computer tracking for the spike in collections. More parents are holding jobs so it is possible to attach more wages, he said.

The healthy job market also means that more state and federal income taxes are being deposited, making it easier to intercept back support payments from tax returns, he said.

Another factor in rising collections was the ability of child support workers last fiscal year to work out some bugs in a statewide child support computer system that Trom blamed for the two years of nearly flat improvement.

“Last year, we learned to live with the system and we learned how to go around some of the problems.”

The failed Statewide Automated Child Support System was scrapped earlier this year in Ventura County and replaced by another computer system that has had promising results, officials said. Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said he expects even more dollars will be collected on behalf of children next year.

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“I believe the implementation of the new KIDZ computer system this year will help us further increase collections,” Bradbury said Monday in a prepared statement.

Trom denied that a package of child support collection reforms, awaiting Gov. Davis’ signature, pressured Ventura County’s unit to pick up their performance. His department is not doing anything markedly different, Trom said.

“Mike [Bradbury] and the Board of Supervisors have always given high priority to this program,” Trom said. “If anything, everything going on in Sacramento is a distraction to our efforts.”

A state audit of California’s child support divisions underscores Ventura County’s commitment to addressing the problem, he said. Los Angeles County employs one child support worker for every 339 cases, but in Ventura County the ratio is 1 to 124, Trom said.

The report, released last week by the state auditor’s office, also found that the state has underestimated by $1.6 billion the amount of child support owed and allows wide differences in how the state’s 58 district attorneys collect back payments.

Trom said he agrees that some district attorneys do not give enough priority to the program and that there is too much disparity in collection efforts across the counties.

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But it is unfair to penalize counties that have been doing a good job because of the poor performance of others, Trom said. Ventura County has about 32,000 open child support cases.

The district attorney’s office assists any parent who is having difficulty collecting payments and also is responsible for collecting payments in cases where the parent who is owed money is on welfare.

Statistics from last year indicate that a payment is received in about one-third of all open cases; the state and national rates are much lower.

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), a reform proponent, said she is pleased that Ventura County has improved its performance. But it still makes sense to strip child support programs from district attorneys, because most have done a poor job for decades, she said.

District attorneys typically are powerful elected officials who are able to control the direction of child support programs in their counties, said Jackson, who toured Ventura County’s child support operations Monday at Trom’s request.

“It is very hard to control what 58 independently elected, strong-willed people want to do,” she said. “There is no accountability on a statewide basis and I think we need that.”

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Reform supporters say district attorneys have done a poor job collecting support and that a statewide approach to going after the dollars is needed.

Trom and Bradbury, who completed a term as president of the statewide District Attorney’s Assn. in June, say that moving the program to a state bureaucracy would just cause more problems and not guarantee additional collections.

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