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State errors unfairly cast some dads as deadbeats

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"We're spending millions and millions of US taxpayer dollars on these programs, when most of them are unnecessary," says Jeffrey Leving, an attorney in Chicago specializing in family law. "We really only need to garnish the paychecks of fathers who are deadbeats."

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But supporters of the new system say it has its advantages, despite problems in a few states, including Illinois. For paycheck deductions, which make up more than 60 percent of all child-support payments, employers only need to send one check rather than many. Money can also be dispersed more quickly. The goal is to process payments within two days. It took five days previously.

Moreover, the switch has not been rough everywhere. Maryland, for example, has had a "smooth transition," notes Kay Cullen, spokeswoman for the National Child Support Enforcement Association in Washington.

Among yesterday's protesters, though, the collection errors were just one part of what they see as broader injustices in the child-support system. Some also said that payments are reaching unreasonably high levels.

Rick Fonseca of Salinas, Calif., had his monthly child-support raised from $2,200 to $4,877 - more than half his paycheck - by the district attorney's office last year. That covers four children in three families.

"It has affected me emotionally, financially, and with my current wife," he says.

He says it recently cost him his job. Because of stress in recent months, he says, his performance went down so much that he was terminated. "I don't mind paying child support, but the amount has to be fair," he adds.

States are trying to ensure fair payments in different ways. In California, George Norton, a family-law attorney in Palm Springs, developed a software program called SupporTax to calculate child-support payments in the state. He calls California's amount "high but realistic." He also terms the state's collection process "fairly good" in some counties, "terrible" in others.

"Many people involved think the rules aren't fair," Mr. Norton says. "It's about as fair as you can get. Nothing's perfect." In cases like Mr. Fonseca's, he says, "One of the problems is, guidelines do not tell you what to do if you have more than one family."

Although 90 percent of child-support paying parents are fathers, the protesters are not all men. "There are a lot of women involved in this movement - second wives, mothers, grandmothers," says protester Dave Usher.

Many of the protesters - men and women - are concerned that punitive measures for nonpaying parents are being strengthened, while safety measures remain the same.

Child-support activists like Ms. Cullen defend these punitive measures, but they also say they would like to see a more amicable approach by all parties in cases of divorce.

"I would hope there would come a day when the child-support industry would not be necessary," says Cullen. "But until that day comes, we'll be here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society