***** Los Angeles Times March 24, 1997, Monday, Home Edition SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Metro Desk HEADLINE: MOTHERS PRESSED INTO BATTLE FOR CHILD SUPPORT BYLINE: CARLA RIVERA, TIMES STAFF WRITER
New lines are being drawn in the battle to improve the collection of child support for millions of children nationwide. But the latest confrontation features an unlikely set of combatants: poor mothers and a government that believes that too often the women are unwilling to help obtain the support payments that could help lift them out of poverty.
The dispute is being driven by federal welfare legislation that requires mothers to do more than they've ever done to help find the absent fathers of their children. That means providing detailed information, even if the mother doesn't have it.
The new federal guidelines, as well as proposals being considered by California lawmakers, are designed to jump-start a child support system that nearly everyone agrees is ailing.
But they are also likely to push the responsibilities of mothers--and fathers--into uncharted realms that raise a host of troubling questions about privacy and the punitive nature of many aspects of welfare reform.
Government officials say it is all about raising the level of personal responsibility and providing the financial security and male role models that are lacking in the lives of so many poor children.
Critics, however, say that welfare mothers, already in dire straits, now face a host of new problems: They could be denied assistance if they cannot dredge up the minutiae of a relationship that may have been short-lived and ended years before; and under tight new welfare time limits, which call for most mothers to get jobs within two years, many of them will soon begin to be shut off aid anyway.
Although the paternity provisions have received little public scrutiny, the issue of child support looms large in any discussion of welfare reform because most everyone agrees that improving support collections could help reduce the welfare caseload.
Under new federal standards, women on welfare must provide a Social Security number, an address, a driver's license number--something more than just the father's name, or risk a minimum 25% reduction in the family's cash grant. States that do not sanction a family for noncooperation could lose millions of dollars in federal funding.
Child support advocates say the demands may prove unrealistic for many women.
"We are punishing the mothers for failure of the system and failure of the fathers," said Paula Roberts, an attorney at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "If he decides to hide what is she supposed to do? There are guys who will use aliases or give their girlfriends false information. Or maybe you had a relationship for two or three years but he has moved on. You end up punishing a lot of mothers for behavior that is not their fault."
Critics also note that the new federal law gives child support authorities new powers to tap into tax and property tax records of both parents to obtain information they need to complete support orders. Many are concerned that the nation's patchwork child support system lacks the safeguards needed to ensure privacy.
Recent proposals by Gov. Pete Wilson use the federal guidelines as a starting point to propound an even tougher philosophy: Government can't collect child support if it can't locate the absent parent. Therefore, mothers must be compelled to provide the information needed to accomplish this.
According to that plan, a family would not receive aid if the mother cannot or will not provide the information. And even after the information is provided, the mother's portion of the grant would be withheld until government has found the father and established paternity.
The only exception, under Wilson's proposal, would be for women who demonstrate that they were involved in abusive relationships.
Under the governor's plan, in cases where paternity has been established, a woman with two children would get the cash amount for a family of three--$ 565 a month. Without legal paternity, only the children would qualify for cash aid--$ 456 or about a 20% cut.
The Wilson plan would require mothers to provide a name and at least three other pieces of identifying information as well as cooperation in enforcing support orders, blood testing and court proceedings.
In California, district attorneys are responsible for establishing paternity of children on welfare and for any child whose mother requests assistance in collecting support.
Child support advocates say the proposals are not only overly punitive but also ignore the state's fragmented, inefficient child support system, where paternity has been established in less than 25% of the cases and can take years even with full cooperation.
Critics note that under Wilson's welfare plan, a mother would qualify for cash assistance for no more than a year (although her children might continue to receive noncash assistance). Therefore, the mother's eligibility for aid might expire by the time the prosecutor established paternity, the critics say.
"The state has a financial incentive to slow down the establishment of paternity because they will save money," asserted Leora Gershenzon, an attorney with the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law. "In this age of block grants, the state has to save as much money as possible."
Gershenzon said she knows of no other state child support proposals that go as far as Wilson's.
"In this area our governor is by himself," she said. "He seems to be focusing only on the punitive parts. California stands to lose millions of dollars in overall child support funding unless it improves its performance and that means improving the system. But the state is not focusing on that right now, but would rather punish parents."
Indeed, a $ 262 million state computer system designed to improve child support collections is in such disarray that many question whether California would be able to enforce some of the measures in Wilson's welfare plan.
State officials suspended operation of the Statewide Automated Child Support System in December after most of the 23 counties that had installed the system complained that it was virtually unusable. An independent consultant found 1,400 specific problem areas, including major design flaws. Workers say the system is needlessly slow, overly complicated and unable to perform basic accounting functions.
In a report released last month, the consultant, Logicom, concluded that the problems were fixable but recommended another review in 90 days to determine whether to go forward or scrap the system, which has cost the state, federal and county governments $ 82 million thus far. Some counties, including San Francisco, have threatened to pull out of the system by the end of March unless progress is made.
Los Angeles County, which has the state's highest caseload (687,569 cases last year, most of them welfare cases), has its own computer system, but that system also has been problem-plagued and the district attorney's office itself has been criticized for its performance.
The governor's child support proposal is scheduled to be taken up April 1 in the Assembly's Human Services Committee, where it will probably face scrutiny. Committee chairwoman Dion Aroner, (D-Oakland) herself a former welfare caseworker and co-chair of a joint special committee on welfare reform, has voiced concern about many Wilson proposals.
"The committee is concerned that we shouldn't be in a position that we would be overly punitive with children in establishing paternity, especially where there are failures in enforcement and mothers are unable to get paternity established through no fault of their own," said committee consultant Curt Child.
State officials agree that it may be unfair to dock mothers while the problematic computer-tracking system--the key tool to speed up the process--is on hold.
But they vow a fight to retain key provisions that strive to force responsibility for their actions on sometimes reluctant parents.
"The question you have to ask is how can you sleep with this person and not know anything, and if you don't think you're going to get that information then don't sleep with him," said Department of Social Services spokeswoman Corinne Chee.
Chee said that each case will be evaluated independently but she asserted that grim child support data bear out the official concerns. According to state figures, 38% of children on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (called TANF under the new welfare law) do not have legal fathers. Fifty percent of single mothers on AFDC have never been married. Wilson's 1996-97 budget includes an additional $ 25.9 million to track down deadbeats.
"This is all about the well-being of children and if these women want government support, they have to cooperate with the government," said Chee.
Proponents of the governor's proposals contend that many women on welfare are disinclined to cooperate with authorities if they can work out a private arrangement with their ex-husbands or boyfriends to provide support money. If the government tracks down the father, his payments are used to supplement the family's cash assistance grant, rather than given to the family directly.
Many women would rather receive their full cash grant and a little money from the father on the side rather than cooperate in finding the father, supporters of the welfare overhaul contend.
However, child support advocates argue that failures lie more with the system than uncooperative mothers.
It took Angie Esmonde eight years and endless bureaucratic mix-ups to get paternity established for her 11 year-old daughter. This despite the fact that Esmonde's ex-boyfriend was in the military and easily reachable during most of the struggle. They met in 1985, while both were in the Navy and spent "five wonderful weeks together," said Esmonde.
"I got pregnant," she says. "It was not something that I ever thought would happen or a situation where we ever thought we'd see each other again."
The Northridge resident claims that she got the runaround for months when trying to deal with the Navy. She left the service under a hardship condition, with the Navy asserting that she could not fulfill her duties as a single mother.
Her attempts to solicit help in establishing paternity from the Los Angeles and Ventura county district attorney's offices produced little results, with prosecutors referring her to the Navy and Navy officials bouncing her back to the prosecutors.
At one point, Esmonde found out that her case sat idle on a desk in Montgomery, Ala., her boyfriend's home state, for 3 months.
L.A. County prosecutors Friday confirmed most of the particulars of Esmonde's case, including the long delay once paperwork was sent to Alabama. However, they said they could find no record indicating that Esmonde actively pursued her case between 1986 and 1990.
Prosecutors finally located Esmonde's ex-boyfriend, who had joined the Coast Guard, in 1994. She was on welfare at the time, having lost her home and business during the Northridge earthquake.
She gets $ 236 in monthly child support payments now, is off welfare and her former boyfriend has become actively involved in his daughter's life. But she says she still feels the loss of years of waiting.
"There are good and bad aspects about our welfare system--and there are a lot of irresponsible parents out there, but they need to be putting money into a system that is overwhelmed instead of punishing women and children," she said. *****