In the five years since reforming its system for ensuring that divorced or absent parents pay proper child support, Los Angeles County remains among the nation's worst in actually securing money.
This year, county officials helped collect 45% of what parents owed their children, up from less than a third in 2000 -- showing "slow, steady progress," said Steven Golightly, the agency's chief deputy director.
But child advocates say the county should be doing even better for the nation's largest child-support pool of roughly 475,000 kids.
Advocates argue that poor management and training hamper the system's effectiveness, and that customer service remains subpar.
Vincent Logan, 42, can vouch for that. The former custodian from Long Beach has been to court nine times, undergone more than a dozen audits and spoken before the child support advisory board five times in the last three years to straighten out how much he owed his ex-wife to help their teenage daughter.
On disability for a back injury suffered on the job, Logan has struggled to wend his way through the bureaucracy.
"I was taken through the wringer," Logan said. He successfully fought suspension of his driver's license as he tried to work with child support agents to make his payments -- varying between $450 a month and the current $240 -- and eventually received a refund of nearly $1,000 that he overpaid. The whole process should have been simple, Logan said.
"You're scratching your head trying to figure out, 'Well, how does this system work?' " he said. "They're supposed to have the people's interest at heart."
Former Gov. Gray Davis approved creation of a new state child support department to streamline the collection of money from absent parents.
After years of dismal collection rates and frustrated families, the state Legislature stripped district attorneys of control of the disjointed system and created a new, unified state program to get money into families' hands faster.
The management change was supposed to shift the department's philosophy from prosecutors hunting down deadbeat dads to extract the most money possible to social service experts helping families.
But a report this year by the state legislative analyst's office blames a persistently weak child support operation in Los Angeles County and the state in general on restrictive state oversight and a lack of financial incentives to local governments to improve collection rates.
Part of the problem, Golightly said, is under-funding. The county's child support caseload -- the largest in the nation -- is more than a quarter of the state's cases. But Los Angeles County receives only about a fifth of California's $1.2-billion annual child support enforcement budget.
County child support director Philip Browning agrees that Los Angeles needs more flexibility to run its program but says adequate money for child support enforcement is crucial to the system's success.
"It's inconceivable to me for somebody to say that money doesn't make any difference," Browning said.
With proportionate funds, the county could add 1,000 more employees to its current workforce of about 1,800 to help collect child support, Browning said.
"The amount of money the county gets is the strongest determinant of how that county's going to perform," he said.
Browning also points to a problematic state computer system that blocks information-sharing.
In 2008, the state agency plans to roll out a federally mandated centralized database to process child support payments.
Critics argue that funding disparities are less important than the county's inability to run the program effectively.
Other jurisdictions have done a better job of collecting support dollars through automated systems such as wage garnishments or driver's license holds, said Curt Child, who ran the new agency from 2000 to 2004 and now is senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.
And, child support advocates contend that the county's recently rising collection rate can be largely attributed to closing more than 200,000 cases over the last five years in ways that have manipulated the statistics.
Browning calls that characterization "totally inaccurate," and says state and federal agencies require that specific guidelines be met -- such as the inability to locate a parent after three years -- before county officials can close a case.
Some child support advocates believe department staffers are listening more and penalizing less, said Reginald Brass, founder of My Child Says Daddy, a local organization that helps fathers to win custody and visitation rights.
Brass believes it is important to focus on the system's modest gains.
"Just to keep harboring all the negative" impressions of the department, Brass said, "I don't think does us any good."
Dawn Nelson of Rancho Palos Verdes calls the child support staffer who helped her collect thousands from her ex-husband to fund her daughter's college education "an angel walking the Earth."
The department offered Nelson, 47, a customer service supervisor for a printing company, extra help just weeks before her daughter turned 18.
"I was really amazed that for a government agency that I've received such personalized service," she said. "You meet people there that are really doing this because they care. They really are making a difference in people's lives."
Child advocates counter that "customer service is still a huge problem in Los Angeles County," referring to the notoriously impenetrable system, once nearly impossible for families to navigate.
The county persists as "one of the major holes in the performance of the child support program, because that's the one county where most of our kids live," Child said.
County officials say complaints to a program that fields 15,000 calls a day have dropped, and child support outreach to educate the public has been a success.
"I can honestly tell you, it changed," said Walter Taylor, a 45-year-old father who has had dealings with the child support system over the last five years.
After years of not knowing his rights, Taylor received more than $8,000 back in overpayments, and the United Parcel Service salesman from Compton finally feels like the department is handling his case properly.
Los Angeles County's struggle to improve child support collections has grown more urgent with the shift of most child support recipients off welfare, Child said.
Because most support dollars are now going directly to families rather than the government, Child said, "that really changes the dynamics and importance of the role this program plays for children."
And county officials and advocates alike are worried about a federal budget-trimming bill that would slash federal child support reimbursements, hobbling state and local programs.
"Quite honestly, I've given up," said Sue Speir, president of Long Beach-based Single Parents United 'N Kids, a child support advocacy group. "Only the names have changed."
Altering people's perception of a historically antagonistic agency -- at times responsible for billing the wrong man for thousands in erroneous payments, or even charging the deceased -- remains a challenge, Golightly said.
County officials, he said, are "changing the mentality and the culture of our staff to say, 'We want to help the people who come to see us.' "