Child Support Services Ranks Near Top In State Monday December 8, 2003, Mountain Democrat by Hank Lawson <<return to Media Index
While love affairs may be fleeting, child support is forever. But if parents do separate, the children of El Dorado County can count on Laura Roth and her excelling Child Support Services staff. Despite layoffs and budget cuts plaguing state government, CSS has received California’s recognition as a top-ten child support agency. It ranked sixth of the state’s 58 counties. CSS earned the ranking with top performances in mandates such as amount of child support collected and number of parentages legally established. Roth attributed the department’s success to her staff’s innovation and application of honey rather than vinegar. “Rather than incarcerate non-payer,” she said, “we prefer to work with parents to create an opportunity for them to honor their responsibilities.” Fourteen-year department veteran and senior child support specialist Patty Mirsky echoed this from her experience. “I don’t think the heavy-handed approach ever worked.” One way CSS staff effects the service-oriented approach is by calming parents confronted with the intimidating legal documents involved. Child Support Specialist Judy Zabokrtsky noted, “I’m the sweet voice on the phone that explains what the 40 legal pages they received mean.” “It isn’t Disneyland,” cautioned Mirsky, adding, “but when a mother comes to me crying and saying she had no money left for food, but found a child support check in the mail box, it makes all the difference.” Roth is also trying to turn around the negativity of child support obligation. She bristles at the use of “deadbeat.” She prefers “absent parent.” Roth, too, is sensitive to CSS sometimes not pleasing either parent.
“The absent parent thinks we want too much and the custodial parent thinks we get too little,” said Roth. “I often hear staff on the telephone asking the caller not to yell at them.” Zabokrtsky added that some absent parents just don’t want the other parent to have anything, even though the money is for the child. She added that parents sometimes mistakenly believe that if their visitation rights are not honored, they can simply stop their payments rather than address the issue legally. Rather than scorn, CSS more properly deserves the county’s gratitude. First, CSS pays for itself. Second, state and federal funds fully support CSS. Third, and most importantly, while CSS collected more than $14 million in the 2002-2003 fiscal year, $10 million went to families and over $4 to welfare expenditures. CSS raised its collections by $1.3 million over the previous year. Roth said that although she had to lay off seven technical and supervisory positions this year, “We spared those who bring the money in.” Helping to fill the employee void, innovative techniques implemented by 67 CSS staff at the Placerville and South Lake Tahoe offices included and automated workers compensation interface, door to door collections, credit card collections, and persistent calls to parents with delinquent accounts. Another jewel gracing the department’s continuing excellence is Job Court. Mirsky, the Job Court representative, works with three child support attorneys such as Carrie Ehlers to work out a court order that directs a non-working, absent parent to apply for at least five jobs every two weeks and log them accurately under penalty of perjury. One of many who have benefited from the program is Debra Wagner of Placerville. Wagner stopped working a year ago to try and keep her son, who had anger issues, out of trouble. He wound up in a group home. “They (CSS) helped me get motivated and feel better when I was looking for work.” In two weeks, Wagner found a job with benefits as a cashier at the Placerville Wal-Mart. Her son is now at home with his mother and earns straight A’s as a student at a local high school, she said. For herself, Wagner bought a car, further establishing her independence. Legislative mandate broke away CSS from the District Attorney’s Office in 2000, about the time Roth became the Director after 11 years of child support experience. Rated 16th then, Roth’s charges have steadily improved department efficiency. CSS earned a 9th place finish in 2001.
Roth said her staff, consistently enthusiastic despite the obstacles, brim with 35 new ideas to continue their improvement. Principal among these are increased Internet usage and electronic fund transfer to save mail costs and speed fund delivery to children. E-mail Hank Lawson at email@example.com or call 344-5071.