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The California Child-Support Fiasco

Larry Stirling [writer] 4/6/07

In the annals of government screw-ups, the repugnant epic of the federal and California state governments bollixing child-support collections is the worst.

Unpaid child support for 2 million children now totals approximately $19 billion, up from $14.4 billion just six years ago. This whole mess started with a 1988 federal law that requires each state to create a "statewide computer system to track and help collect child-support payments."


Larry Stirling
Larry Stirling is a former California State Senator and Retired Superior Court Judge [go to Stirling index]

The collection of civil child support orders falls under the "police powers" of the states. Federal legislators should read the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which clearly forbids such initiatives.

The state of California should have sued the Feds, pointing out to the court that such legislation is "ultra vires" to federal constitutional authority and therefore void.

States did not sue because the Feds included a hook designed to snare the greedy. That law promised money to the states if they complied timely and, oh yes, a penalty if they did not.

California is one of only two states in the Union that has not yet successfully complied with this law. As a result, we taxpayers have been "fined" by the federal government $1.2 billion. Who pays that fine? The state employees or state contractors who screwed up the assignment? Nope: us.

Is there any worse public policy than the bankrupt federal government bribing state and local governments to comply with a void law and then "fining" them for their failure? Even if the Feds had the authority to impose such a requirement, it was unnecessary to do so.

The first reason is that child support in California is handled on a county-by-county basis. Insiders tell me computer support available to child-support operatives in San Diego was superior to that of Los Angeles.

San Diegans complained bitterly that locals were being forced to abandon a superior format and adopt L.A.'s protocol simply because it would be a cheaper way to meet the federal deadline. In other words, form over substance.

The result of that internecine warfare delayed implementation of a statewide system and brought on the fines.

The second and much more important reason the Feds never should have passed such legislation is that not one, not two, but at least three computerized data bases for tracking down "deadbeat parents" already exist. They are and continue to be available to child-support seekers at nominal cost. There is no cost of development or operation.

These systems are known as credit-reporting agencies. They are not just statewide in scope: They are worldwide.

Any creditor can subscribe to any or all credit-reporting systems presently used by millions of other creditors around the world. While the eventually fielded software being provided to government child-support collectors may have a few additional bells and whistles (for the billions spent and fined), the essence of collecting any debt is locating the subject and encumbering his or her credit rating and levying on available assets.

This mess is not entirely the federal government's fault. California lawmakers and state staff share a large part of the blame for this disaster. California blundered when it criminalized the issue of child-support payments, thereby involving district attorneys up and down the state.

Collections failure ultimately resulted in the states DAs being ignominiously relieved of the responsibility. Sadly that resulted in the creation of yet another new ineffective bureaucracy.

Child-support payments are civil orders of a civil court. Collecting money via the criminal courts is notoriously ineffective. The notion creates a "debtors prison," something we thought was abandoned along with our ties to England.

District attorneys specialize in using various hammers in prosecution and sentencing. And as a public-policy pundit once observed: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

As a judge, I presided over several cases involving child-support orders. The criminal remedy never worked even when the defendant was actually found.

Child-support violations are misdemeanors. Law enforcement hardly ever serves a misdemeanor arrest warrant and certainly not across county or state lines.

The solution is to return this issue to the civil division of the Superior Court where it belongs.

The Legislature should allow an enforceable civil judgment to accrue automatically as soon as the payment is overdue so the parent can immediately refer the matter to a private-collection agency. The law should further state a child-support payment includes, by operation of law, not only interest on the unpaid balance, but also the "actual and reasonable costs of collections."

This change would mobilize and unleash an army of collections agents and attorneys to work on behalf of kids.

Such collectors only get paid when they collect. That is certainly different from what is happening now. CRO

copyright 2007 Larry Stirling


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