Sacromento Bee

Tuesday, August 31, 1999

No blood from turnips: Punishing dads on child support hurts kids, too

The Sacromento Bee

As California moves to fix the state's broken child support collection system, lawmakers must keep their eyes on the real goal: getting money to children in need. Everything else -- punishing deadbeat dads, reimbursing the state for welfare payouts, collecting interest and penalties on top of support owed -- should be secondary.

To understand why, consider the case of Glen Nestor.

Nestor, 44, was 15 when his teenage wife, also 15, gave birth to twin boys. Nestor and his wife separated a year and a half later. Over the next 16 years or so, his sons drifted back and forth between mom and dad and, when mom died, between grandma and dad. When the kids weren't with him, Nestor says he sent money, a couple of hundred here and there, whenever he was asked.

In short, it was one of those untidy domestic arrangements common in post-"Leave It to Beaver America."

Nestor is now stuck with a $48,000 bill for child support. This is money the government says he owes -- not to his children, who are grown, but to reimburse Stanislaus County during the time Nestor's ex-wife and his ex-mother-in-law collected welfare, possibly fraudulently.

To get his attention, the county has revoked Nestor's driver's license and grabbed tax refunds he had coming. The county also seeks to garnishee his wages. To avoid the sanctions, he works underground. His life has been disrupted, with no benefit to either his children or the wider society.

To fix the child support collection system, the state must come to grips with tens of thousands of Nestors. The vast majority are fathers, some of whom were not informed they owed support until years after orders had been issued and back child support, interest and welfare debt had grown to astronomical levels; some are in prison, on welfare themselves, disabled or unemployed.

Several bills pending in the Legislature offer sensible relief to absent parents, while at the same time saving the money and time counties waste chasing debt that is uncollectible.

AB 472 by Assemblywoman Diane Aroner would establish an amnesty program offering forgiveness or reduction in interest and penalties an absent parent owes to the state in exchange for the parent's agreement to pay child support in the future and to keep current. It also would give noncustodial parents, usually dads, the same rights as custodial parents to require counties to hear and resolve disputes.

AB 380 by Assemblyman Rod Wright would wipe out two of the three years of reimbursement absent parents are now required to pay if a child has been on public assistance. Originally, the measure sensibly would have wiped out all three years of welfare debt. To the extent paying back welfare interferes with a father's ability to support his children now, why punish poor children?

Finally, the state needs to do a study of the $8 billion to $12.9 billion in outstanding child support debt. Who owes this money? Are the indebted destitute themselves and thus unable to pay? Are they in prison? Who are the children? Are they adults or still minors?

Armed with this information, the new office of Child Support Services could design enforcement and collection programs that would get the most support to the most children -- programs with the goal of not punishing fathers, but rather of helping them meet their obligations to their children.

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