CONGRESS wrapped and sent early Christmas presents to several million American children this year. But questions remain as to how many of these ``gifts'' will be delivered, how soon, and whether it will make a difference, particularly to a youngster in dire need. On Oct. 1 the new Child Support and Enforcement Amendments went into effect. The law now mandates a broad range of tough provisions for collecting delinquent child-support payments from estranged spouses. Among its provisions are attachment of wages, interception of tax refunds, liens against property, and requirements that states procure security, bond, or other guarantees from parents with records of overdue support.
Some family-law experts say the new legislation could go a long way toward collecting a lion's share of an estimated $4 billion in delinquent child-support payments.
Under federal mandate, most states have already passed compliance legislation to implement the congressional legislation. But some are dragging their feet. The new law also gives states up to two years to pen guidelines for determining amounts of child-support payments. Lack of compliance will result in loss of federal funds.
The centerpiece of the new law is wage withholding. This stipulation also stirs up the most controversy. The burden now is on employers to set up payday procedures under which child-support payments may be deducted automatically from salary checks.
Margaret Haynes of the American Bar Association's National Legal Resource Center for Child Advocacy points out, however, that this does not address the problem of collecting from the self-employed or unemployed.
Noncompliance with judicial orders to pay child support is widespread in the United States, reports the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. And a recent study indicates that disregard of payment orders is as common among affluent parents as among impoverished ones.
Some estranged spouses, mainly fathers, say that the new amendments put tough legal clamps on them to pay child support but do little or nothing to encourage custodial parents to allow visitation rights. Miss Haynes says that as a result of studies that show visitation encourages payment of child support, some states are now mandating those rights.
Nancy Ebb, senior staff attorney with the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), points out that key to the successful implementation of the new child-support regulations will be the effectiveness of state systems to track payments that fall behind. Miss Ebb adds that slow-moving administrative and legal processes are sometimes as much of a hurdle to the delivery of financial aid to children as parents' foot-dragging.
Generally, CDF and other children's advocacy groups hail the new child-support regulations as a major step in the right direction. But they urge that a broader commitment to the health and welfare of minors is needed.
This would include increased government funding for day care, school lunches, educational enrichment, child nurturing in the home, and special support for families coping with abuse, drug, alcohol, or crime-related problems.
A package of federal legislation -- designated the ``Children's Survival Bill'' -- has been introduced in Congress by US Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Rep. George Miller (D) of California. It carries a $14 billion price tag.
``This is clearly a blueprint for even a modest investment in children,'' says Ann Rosewater, deputy staff director of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.
Senator Dodd -- in rebutting a now prevailing argument that these funds are more needed for defense and national security -- insists that children's welfare is a national security issue. ``It's our future we are talking about,'' he says.
US Census Bureau statistics show that nearly 25 percent of all US children under six years of age live in poverty. This number swells to 50 percent for black children. The total is an estimated 14 million impoverished children -- more than before the Great Society programs began in the 1960s.
``The answer is to change our basic attitudes toward the nurturing of children,'' says Ed J. Polk, director of the San Francisco-based Children's Rights Group. Mr. Polk calls for government leaders to take an active role in lobbying for children instead of ``trying to balance the budget on their backs.'' He adds that the child-support amendments ironically tend to place children in the middle and perhaps ``drive a deeper wedge between parent and child.''
Others, however, see these regulations as a good start -- significant, but not sufficient, as one expert puts it. ``Child support is important,'' says CDF's Ebb. ``But it's not the sole solution for women and children in poverty.'' A Thursday column