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TOUGH NEW LAWS WILL HELP STATE TACKLE RAPIDLY GROWING CHILD-SUPPORT CASELOAD

SHARE TOUGH NEW LAWS WILL HELP STATE TACKLE RAPIDLY GROWING CHILD-SUPPORT CASELOAD

For Nadine Ferre, the jail sentence her ex-husband is serving for failure to pay more than $29,000 in child support is not enough.

Forty days behind bars won't make up for the food and clothes her five children had to do without, or pay for the $650 cheerleading uniform her youngest daughter is counting on for school this fall."The kids didn't get cars to get to their jobs. They didn't get all the clothes they needed or the quality of clothes that they wanted," Ferre said. "They didn't get steady allowances."

It's an all-too-familiar story for state officials using newer, tougher laws to track 85,000 child support cases and more than $340 million owed for Utah children. But Ferre, they say, is one of the lucky ones.

The state can't even find about a third of the parents owing support or the source of their income, and half of its clients receive welfare assistance.

The new laws are aimed at cutting welfare costs by forcing parents to honor court-ordered child support or face garnished wages or even jail.

"It's often an obligation that gets laughed off," said Joyce Allred, program coordinator for the Office of Recovery Services, established in the mid-1970s to collect child support. "It seems like in the scheme of things the bill that gets forgotten is the child support payment."

The state sees child support as a responsibility that must not be shirked, but there are some gray areas. Many non-custodial parents, for instance, resent the government's zealotry.

"It's interesting that child support is enforced with such vehemence but they refuse to address court-ordered visitation," said Michael Zufelt of FOCUS: Children and the Other Parent, which promotes the interest of non-custodial parents and their children.

In many cases, the mere mention of child support sparks bitter feelings of resentment and animosity among both mothers and fathers, with children caught in between. And as the state's divorce rate has risen beyond 50 percent, the battle has intensified.

Evidence of the state's stepped-up collection effort, and the anger it engenders, can be seen in the Recovery Services security system. An electronic cardkey is required before caseworkers can access the elevator to their offices, and plexiglass shields the receptionists' desk.

"It's to protect our staff. We've had threats in the past," Allred said.

The office employs 317 workers, each of whom handles about 300 cases, and the agency receives about 2,000 new cases a month. To cut into that caseload, state officials are getting tougher with deadbeat parents.

At least two fathers already have lost driving privileges under a new state law that allows judges to suspend driver's licenses for parents who don't pay child support.

Another law the Legislature passed this year gives Utah courts the right to adjudicate child-support awards for children who are living in the state but are owed financial assistance by out-of-state parents.

The state also is setting up a hotline in the next month to allow residents to report deadbeats anonymously.

"It's kind of a shame that people will not hesitate to turn in their neighbor for child abuse but will not blink an eye if they know the neighbor is not paying child support, which really is making the child suffer as well," said Allred.

In addition, more judges are putting delinquent parents behind bars. Last year, 28 criminal nonsupport cases resulted in 17 parents serving time. And more than 1,400 civil contempt hearings in 1995 brought jail time for another 146.

It took more than a decade for the courts to catch up with Ferre's ex-husband, Garth Heiner, who state officials say hid his assets to avoid paying child support.

A Davis County Jail employee, who did not give her name, said she could not relay a message to Heiner seeking comment. He was sentenced last month to 360 days in jail, with all but 40 days suspended, for his guilty plea to one count of criminal nonsupport.

Heiner also must pay a $2,500 fine, $29,043 in back child support and $150 a month in ongoing support. He was placed on two years probation and ordered to find a job.

Ferre, who divorced Heiner in 1984 and remarried two years later, said she has worked as a legal secretary to support her children. Meantime, Heiner has a pharmacy degree and a doctorate of law but will not work, she said.

"I don't even have a college degree . . . and yet here's a man with two degrees and no one says you have to get a job or else," Ferre said.

"Thieves indeed serve jail time for their crimes. Deadbeats never do," she added. "Aren't they the same thing? About the worst they get is a hand slap and maybe a few days in jail."

FOCUS's Zufelt, who is the non-custodial father of two daughters, ages 11 and 13, believes Heiner is the exception. He notes that the state handles mostly delinquent cases and rarely sees the fathers who faithfully pay child support.

He also has problems with the way the state is collecting that support.

"You can get five or six DUIs - practically have to have negligent vehicle homicide - to get your driver's license taken away. But you get 30 days behind on your child support and by god look what happens," he said.

Zufelt would rather see the state revise its child support guidelines. In many cases, he said, parents cannot meet child support obligations because the amount ordered is simply too high.

His group also is planning to challenge the state's new driver's license law and is working on a class-action lawsuit that would focus on the rights of non-custodial parents.

Len Eldridge, an attorney who represents non-custodial fathers in custody disputes and created the group Dads Against Discrimination, wants to see the state focus as much on visitation as financial support.

"Heart strings loosen purse strings. If you can see your kids, you're much more likely to pay," said Eldridge, whose ex-wife has custody of their 5-year-old son.

There also needs to be an accounting of the support that is paid, leniency if the parent loses a job or is injured and can't meet that payment, and visitation guidelines if a custodial parent moves out of state, he said.

Legislators may address some of those issues next year, said Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, who sponsored much of the child support legislation during the past session.

"We're coming up with some crazy ideas," said Frandsen, who hopes to introduce legislation that would set up some type of nonjudicial forum where parents could vent feelings about visitation and child support.

He envisions something similar to mediation or even the divorce education classes the state now requires.

Ferre prefers taking away visitation if support is not paid.

"The message I would hope people get from this," she said, "is that if you disobey the law, you have to pay the consequence."