Garnish: Dad. Today's trend is for tighter child support enforcement laws. PAYING UP

`I ALWAYS wanted my kids to have things, because my parents provided for me,'' says Mauri Stephenson, leaning against a rusty railing outside his apartment complex. But ever since his divorce seven years ago, Mr. Stephenson has been in and out of court for failing to support his two children - daughter, Angela, 13, and son, Anthony, 11.

He admits he gambled, mismanaged his money, and quit or got fired from his jobs. While his former wife supported their children, Stephenson fled to Ohio to avoid child support collection agents.

Once he spent 90 days in jail for being in arrears. Twice his girlfriend paid his child support for him.

How can a man who professes to love his children be so negligent in providing for them?

``I'm just now growing up at age 35,'' says Stephenson with a sigh.

He recently began a new job as a manager with Kmart and is now nearly caught up with back payments.

``I'm not saying the law is wrong,'' he acknowledges. ``I know I owe it.

``But they should take every case into account.'' THAT is just the opposite of the trends in child support enforcement legislation that have been gaining momentum throughout the decade.

Beginning with the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, federal laws have increasingly standardized and automated support enforcement.

The 1984 amendments provided for computer networks to track child support offenders across state lines, and required states to automatically garnish wages of parents in arrears.

Now, with the new welfare reform act signed by President Ronald Reagan in October, wage withholding will become mandatory for all noncustodial parents ordered to pay child support, unless the custodial parent agrees otherwise.

Beginning in 1990, employers will garnish wages of absent parents of children in households receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

By 1994, employers will automatically garnish wages of everyone ordered to pay child support - before they have a chance to prove whether or not they are deadbeats.

In addition, the act makes state guidelines for setting the amount of child support awards mandatory unless judges state in writing why they are making an exception.

State guidelines - based in part on studies of what it costs to raise a child - are overall higher than the average support amounts that judges have previously awarded.

THE plan to garnish wages of all noncustodial parents has raised protests from people who claim it lumps the innocent with the guilty and infringes on their privacy.

But a bleak parade of statistics has proved more powerful than this argument.

Since 1984, the Child Support Enforcement Program (a partnership of local, state, and federal governments) has nearly doubled the amount of court-ordered child support it collects each year, recovering $3.9 billion in 1987.

But that is only a fraction of the $14 billion owed that year nationwide.

A 1986 US Census survey revealed that 60 percent of all families with absent fathers received no child support whatever, and 30 percent were living below the poverty level.

Amounts of court-ordered support have been remarkably low.

The mean payment ordered in 1985 was $199 a month, less than a typical car payment and far less than is needed to raise a child. The mean payment actually received was $112 a month.

Given these figures, ``the child support provisions of welfare reform legislation are not that controversial,'' says Margaret Haynes, director of the American Bar Association's Child Support Project.

As sponsors made clear by locating the child support provisions in the welfare reform bill, Congress hopes the new law will reduce welfare costs by substituting parental child support for the AFDC that poor women with children now receive.

But whether the law will succeed in collecting more support for poor families is uncertain.

Nationally, almost half of children in AFDC families are born out of wedlock, according to the US Office of Child Support Enforcement. Never-married fathers are the most difficult to track down and force to pay.

Of the 8.8 million families with an absent father in 1985, more than a third did not even have a child support order from the courts. Often paternity had not been established, or the father could not be found.

And many fathers in low-income communities are out of work, work off the books, or change jobs frequently - all undercutting the effectiveness of wage withholding laws.

Most of all, the new laws apply only to new support cases, not affecting the millions of children facing 18 years of life under conditions previously determined.

BUT the decade's legislation clearly indicates a growing insistence on the part of government that parents take financial responsibility for their children, notes Barbara La Follette, assistant director of the Wisconsin Child Support Office.

In Wisconsin, where mandatory wage withholding from all parents has been the law since 1987, ``we're trying to tell people ... this is a responsibility,'' says Ms. La Follette. ``You don't walk out on your children.''

And to further strengthen support enforcement tools, federal funds are helping set up computer networks that access IRS, Veterans Administration, and state divisions of motor vehicles data to trace child support offenders from state to state.

``Some people would say that's Big Brotherism. Well, it is,'' concedes Jerrold Brockmyre, director of the Michigan Office of Child Support Enforcement. ``No one's going to be anywhere without someone being able to find them.''

AS the nation concentrates more resources and attention on the problem of child support enforcement, it is worth noting that a small but solid number of absent fathers do not have to be forced to provide for their children. About a third of the men who actually pay child support do it voluntarily.

``I didn't need a court order,'' says Donald Rigsbee, a divorced father who has met every child support payment he voluntarily agreed to give his former wife, Deborah Perry, eight years ago.

``It's a top priority with me.''

Now remarried to Doreen Rigsbee, the former wife of Mauri Stephenson, Mr. Rigsbee is contributing to two households of children. But he continues to give Ms. Perry 25 percent of his earnings, more than most judges would ever require.

A soft-spoken, stocky man, who owns a countertop-making business, Rigsbee names his religious values and love for his 10-year-old daughter as the reasons for his conscientious payments.

``I know what her bills were, and I know what my daughter wanted out of life,'' he explains. ``Some of the smaller things I want her to have, too.''

No legislation can ever command Rigsbee's kind of love. But new laws intend to force flesh to act when hearts are no longer willing.

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