A new approach to child-support law. Wisconsin parents to be responsible for unwed minor children's babies

When an unwed teen becomes pregnant, it's usually her parents or the welfare system that pays the bills. But under a pioneering new Wisconsin law, parents of both the boy and the girl will be required to support the child. ``Boys' parents are going to have to start paying attention to what junior is doing on Friday and Saturday night,'' insists Wisconsin Rep. Marlin Schneider, the bill's author.

There is, however, widespread concern that the measure may result in more abortions, more shotgun marriages, and more pregnant teenagers dropping out of school. ``It's caused much more of a ruckus than I ever expected,'' admits Representative Schneider.

The new law requires parents, according to their ability to pay, to support any grandchildren until the unwed minor parents are 18. If they don't, they could get up to two years in jail and a fine of $10,000.

This so-called grandparent liability clause is one piece of a 10-part bill aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and abortions. The bill also sets aside $1 million for pregnancy counseling and asks hospitals and clinics to encourage young women to inform their parents when they are having an abortion.

The package was unanimously passed into law by the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate earlier this month. It was a compromise following months of study by a team of religious leaders and representatives of both sides of the abortion issue. Schneider argues that the process was as important as the product.

There is clearly widespread support for the goal of the legislation. This country's teen-pregnancy rate is the highest of any developed country. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city, the rate of births to girls 14 or under is twice the national norm. The national rate is 15.9 per thousand, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York. For many, a link with the welfare system begins with a teen pregnancy.

The law is expected to prod parents to educate their children about sex at an earlier age and to be more supportive of church and school efforts in that direction. A recent poll by Louis Harris for the Planned Parent Federation of America found 64 percent of those queried felt they had little or no control over their teenagers' sexual activity and that outside educational help was needed.

Another recent study indicates that 40 percent of children left unattended after school because of two-career marriages or single-parent situations are experimenting with sex. The study, by Thomas Long of Catholic University and his wife, Lynette, of American University, was the result of nationwide interviews with 400 middle-school children between the ages of 12 and 15.

``In terms of individual accountability and morality, [the Wisconsin law] is sure worth trying,'' says Walter Williams, an economist specializing in problems of minorities at George Mason University, in Virginia.

``Putting the responsibility on the family and not just making it entirely a government responsibility . . . is, it seems to me, a good idea,'' concurs Sar Levitan, director of George Washington University's Center for Social Policy Studies.

But the new law becomes hotly controversial when one begins to talk about its practical effects. ``I think it has value in that it says to parents they'd better teach their children about birth control -- but it's a very strange law,'' says Ohio State University law professor Nancy Erickson.

Barbara Lyons, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Citizens Concerned for Life, a group not involved in the bill's drafting sessions, is concerned that the new law may increase the number of abortions. The added pressure could come from parents, she says, or from the youngsters not wanting to burden their parents with the added costs. She is also concerned that counseling efforts may include more abortion referrals.

Under the new law, the government would continue to pay child support bills of families already on welfare but could force some tough choices on those with incomes just above the poverty level.

``The new law is going to hit middle and low income people the hardest,'' says June Perry, director of New Concepts Self Development, a human service agency active in pregnancy prevention efforts in high risk neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

``Most girls are pretty negative about the law -- they're worried about having more people to answer to in raising their children,'' says Judy Selle of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. She is concerned that the new law could increase the dropout rate for pregnant teenage girls. Reports show that dropping out of school often results in a second pregnancy and makes it increasingly difficult to manage without welfare help.

Until now, says Ms. Selle, government-subsidized child care allowing mothers to return to school has been readily available. If parents have to pay for it, she says, they may refuse.

``In hindsight there wasn't a lot of dialogue and debate about some of the pitfalls we now see,'' says Selle. ``Most of the emphasis was on the prevention of teen pregnancy. There wasn't that much attention paid to the effect the law might have on those who are already pregnant or parents.''

``The grandparents just might decide not to pay for child care,'' agrees Joseph Breiner who heads up income maintenance programs for Wisconsin's Department of Social Services.

Still, for all the questions about the new law's potential impact, most experts interviewed argue that it is well worth a try. ``I wouldn't promise you full success but it's very innovative,'' says George Washington's Mr. Levitan.

``In theory it can't be any worse than the current situation . . . and it's likely to reduce welfare costs,'' adds Sheldon Danzinger, director of the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty.

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