CHILD support - or rather the lack of it - seemed to be one of America's best-kept secrets until recently. But suddenly the failure of absent fathers to provide for their children is being billed as a national scandal.
The attention is good. New legislation is needed. But also needed is an awakening to a broader commitment to love, care for, and support children. Romanticizing the young must give way to action.
Congress, after years of inaction, perhaps even indifference to a need for federal standards, now appears ready to move. Late last year, in fact, a long dormant bill to aid the enforcement of child support suddenly sailed through the House on a vote of 422 to 0. And many states are forming groups or commissions to study the problem.
Women's groups are talking about the problem in terms of the ''feminization of poverty.'' And the media are starting to editorialize against ''deadbeat'' fathers - men who are divorced or separated from their families and who fail to keep up with court-ordered child-support payments.
Recent census statistics should dispel any doubt about the scope of the problem. Of 4 million American women entitled to child support, only 46 percent are receiving what they are supposed to; over 2 million fathers separated from their families provide nothing for the care of their offspring.
As might be expected, the poor and minorities are worst hit. Many mothers who have custody don't earn enough to put food on the table. And welfare and state aid is often inadequate. However, surveys by the Children's Defense Fund and others show that fathers who earn $50,000 and up are even more likely to delay or to refuse child support.
What's the answer? Hard-liners talk about attaching the wages of fathers who owe or intercepting their income tax rebates and plowing them into child support payments. A few states are already moving toward adopting standard payment formulas in which the absent father shares responsibility with the custodial mother. In some cases, this would require matching state or federal funds to meet the minimum needs of children. Wisconsin has already adopted standardized guidelines for judges who fix child-support payments based on percentages of gross family income.
The centerpiece of the bill passed last year in the House is a plank calling for mandatory withholding of wages when an absent parent becomes delinquent in child-support payments. A Senate version is due shortly. Many expect that President Reagan, a staunch supporter of child-support reform, will sign such a measure into law. In Congress controversy centers mainly on what state and federal contributions should be - rather than on the value of the measure.
However, some absent fathers feel they are being swamped by a new wave of emotion over the subject. They say that the courts have been too hard on them - making awards far beyond their capacity to pay. Some point out that they are barred from visiting their children but are expected to shoulder the upkeep. Others suggest that ''get tough'' legislation could lead to nonpayment convictions without due process of law.
Perhaps this hints at the deeper, underlying problem that helped create the situation in the first place: a fundamental lack of appreciation for the sanctity of the family and a devotion to nurturing it.
Divorce in America has become all too commonplace. While there are valid reasons why some marital relationships should be terminated, there is no justification for abandonment of children by parents.
The most effective child support is wrapped in love and devotion. Obviously, some family breakups could be averted through better communication between adults and a commitment, or recommitment, to the well-being of the children.
On a broader basis, society must become more sensitized to the consequences of divorce and its impact on children. In awarding custody, judges should look basically at the best interests of the child rather than rely solely on precedent or formulas. Determination of child support should be based on principle and compassion rather than emotion or vindictiveness. A changing cost-of-living factor should be built in to payment formulas. Also, the special needs of certain children - whether educational or health-related - must be considered. If either the father or mother remarries, switches jobs, or undergoes a substantial change in income, adjustments should be made.
The new focus on the problem is a good beginning. And most of the suggested remedies for holding parents (mainly fathers) responsible for payment are also a move in the right direction. But we can't stop there. A national commitment to the welfare and sustenance of children is a necessary next step. And a better cementing of the family is a necessary goal.