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You look up the number for the D.C. government office and dial away. Predictably, the receptionist announces that you’ve reached the wrong number—try this other one. You’re now one step into the runaround, which D.C. bureaucrats do better than long lunch breaks. You dial the new number and get no answer. After three days of pounding, a person finally answers with another predictable response. You call the third number and speak with someone who can’t answer your question.

It would be one thing if, say, the motor vehicles office authored the runaround. Or some permit office at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But in this case, the runaround comes from none other than the Office of Paternity and Child Support Enforcement (OPCSE), which is responsible for tracking down and dunning deadbeat dads. As the phone runaround exemplifies, the OPCSE, which has mustered some of the country’s worst child-support success rates, takes after those it seeks to corral.

“The District runs the worst child-support system in the country,” says Paula Roberts, senior attorney for the Center for Law and Social Policy. “To be the worst is a singular dishonor.”

OPCSE’s mission is to find deadbeat fathers, issue orders mandating them to pay child support, and enforce the orders. But according to critics, the office has done so poorly at identifying the deadbeats that it has little work in issuing and enforcing support orders. To be fair, the high percentage of children born out of wedlock in the District makes it difficult to track down deadbeats.

But the problem is not exactly novel, and the OPCSE isn’t exactly wising up to it. “The area of paternity establishment is a system that never worked well, and it’s getting worse and worse,” says Roberts. So bad, in fact, that paternity establishments (OPCSE’s jargon for finding deadbeat fathers) between 1993 and 1995 dropped from 2,884 cases to 1,683 cases. The office, which derives approximately 80 percent of its funding from the federal government, collects $1.88 from deadbeats for every $1.00 it receives from the feds.

The numbers suggest an office in a tailspin. “In every other state, the process for establishing paternity has improved, with rates going up dramatically,” notes Roberts.

Child-support advocates credit in-hospital verification, under which both parents vouch for their newborns in the maternity ward, for improving paternity-establishment rates across the country. Most jurisdictions, including the District, adopted the procedure three years ago.

Yet the District is the only jurisdiction that has seen a drop in paternity establishment in this period. District officials called in Gene Ihrlbeck, the originator of in-hospital verification, to diagnose the city’s paternity-establishment problems. Ihrlbeck recommended simple, common-sensical steps for city hospitals, like keeping forms at the maternity desk and training staff on their responsibilities under the program. Judging from the District’s performance, Ihrlbeck’s recommendations apparently never made the jump from paper to practice.

Even though comparing the District to states exaggerates OPCSE’s failings, the numbers don’t look much better when compared to other cities with similar demographic profiles. For example, San Diego, a city with a comparable child-support caseload, collects $3.35 for every $1.00 of federal funding.

OPCSE’s record on issuing payment orders for deadbeat dads surpasses its paternity-establishment record in ineptitude. Last year, the office issued a meager 1,326 orders, fewer than half the number issued in 1993. Critics say the decline means that the office is either failing to prepare orders, or the courts are holding them up. Since the courts have not changed their handling of the orders, blame for the drop-off rests with OPCSE.

The office’s substandard performance on payment orders looks more outrageous considering that cases involving mothers on public assistance, which are harder to track down, account for a relatively low proportion of the caseload. In addition, serving the orders has become easier in recent years since the Metropolitan Police Department took this chore from the U.S. Marshals, who always put it last on their to-do list. So, if it’s now easier to serve people their orders, why aren’t OPCSE’s numbers going up? “It’s a mystery,” says Roberts.

OPCSE has plenty of raw material to work with: In a June 20 speech, D.C. Superior Court Judge Eugene Hamilton said there were presently 58,605 cases awaiting processing in the office.

OPCSE has gone without a director since Irma Neal left several years ago. And critics say the program suffers from the same maladies that afflict nearly every other D.C. government office: poor training, unmotivated workers, and no performance goals.

“There is a major breakdown in the whole system. You’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg,” says a former employee of Ayuda, a prominent District nonprofit.

Dave Jackson, managing editor the Family Law Reporter, says, “When it comes down to hard practice, if you are a mother of a kid and you’re seeking child support, it’s a tough system to negotiate. The system is designed that way.”

At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp, who chairs the D.C. Council’s committee on human services, says a redesign of the city’s child-support enforcement is in the works. Cropp says the mayor is now reviewing a committee proposal to contract paternity establishment and enforcement to a “company with an exceptional record” in the field. “If the service is contracted out, we expect to see a dramatic impact, like some of the other states,” she says.

Cropp says that the office’s problems stem largely from the budget crisis that has paralyzed most other municipal functions and insists that improvements in child-support enforcement will come as part of a 1997 initiative to “bring more efficiency into the government.”

In addition, the council last year enacted legislation to help OPCSE track down deadbeats in neighboring states (like many of its law-abiding citizens, the District’s deadbeat fathers routinely flee to Maryland and Virginia). The bill would also empower the city to withhold wages from deadbeats and revoke their driver’s licenses.

But Roberts says there’s no time to waste: “If we can’t get the system functioning, it won’t take too long before they will need to put their kids in foster care,” she says. “That’s the reality that no one wants to face here.”

—Catherine Alter