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Manual Gotcha - A Child Support Story

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Velasco signed up with Mr. Hoffman's company: "Within a few months, I was getting my money," she said. Most of Mr.

Zaun: Bill requires child support obligations to be met to get food assistance

Hoffman's clients have spent years trying to get the state to collect the money they are owed. In many cases, the absent parent is out of state, complicating enforcement for state workers already burdened with overwhelming caseloads. And most of the state agencies' attention goes to the welfare cases that make up the bulk of the 15 million cases in the system -- cases in which the state keeps much of the money it recovers to recoup its welfare payments to the mother. Hoffman, who practiced family law and headed the Massachusetts bar association before he moved to Texas.

We don't handle welfare cases, our investigators have reasonable caseloads, and we have the financial incentive.


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Ron Dusek, press secretary to the Texas Attorney General, warns that the field is unregulated and ripe for fraud, but he acknowledges that the state can use private companies' help in collecting child support. Dusek said. Critics of the state child-support offices acknowledge that the system is improving, thanks to tougher laws that provide for wage garnishment, computerization, better interstate collection procedures and more. Still, the states' collection efforts are stymied by the millions of babies whose paternity is not officially established, making it impossible to collect money from their fathers.

Although states seek paternity orders, they succeed for only about a third of the 1. Even where paternity is not an issue, millions of mothers never get a court order requiring child support. And even among those who have court orders requiring support, only about half get the full amount they are entitled to.

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Experts say unpaid child support is a prime reason that more than one in five American children live in poverty. The Clinton Administration may include in its proposal to overhaul the welfare system a Federal registry of all child-support orders and a provision making it possible to track noncustodial parents as they move from job to job by requiring all new employees to complete a form about whether they owe child support. But Mr. Hoffman and others say it will be decades before government has a smoothly functioning system. Hoffman said. But we're light years away from that.

Other entrepreneurs have reached a similar conclusion.

Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade Supporting Their Son Zion at Pride Is The Example We All Need

But as many as half the new child-support companies that were started in the last five years have failed. With advice from Mr. Levin said. There's certainly a big problem with child support in this country, but it's not one a private company can solve. Still, private companies can fill a need for some parents who have a court order, are not on welfare and are owed a large amount in back support payments.

While affluent parents have used lawyers to collect child support, lawyers typically charge high retainers and hourly fees, payable whether or not any money is recovered.

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Hoffman's company sometimes gets support payments just by tracking down and contacting the absent parent, usually a father. More often, though, the company must have his wages garnisheed, go to court to collect the money or persuade local law-enforcement officials to arrest him.

In one creative case, where the former husband was unemployed and broke, Mr. Hoffman's company arranged for the wife to receive a mobile home that the man's mother's will had bequeathed to him, to his former wife and to a charity, which agreed to donate its share to the woman. The big draw of the private child-support companies is that they work on contingency. Though many charge a nonrefundable application fee -- Mr. Hoffman's is one of the few that does not, though his 33 percent cut is higher than most -- the private companies get their cut only if they collect.

Some companies take a percentage of the back support payments only; others keep a portion of every payment. In the Hancock Center shopping mall here, Mr. Hoffman's company gets thousands of calls every month from parents, mostly mothers, who are not receiving the money they are owed.

For all the demographers who chart the breakdown of the American family, all the statisticians who track the rise in childhood poverty, it may be Vanessa Diaz, sitting in her basement mall office, who knows the problem best.

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She hears it all: the mother of four facing eviction because she cannot pay the rent, the mother with a seriously ill child and no medical insurance, the mother whose ex-husband just bought a new boat but will not pay a cent in child support. A Sympathetic Voice On the Phone. To callers who meet the company's guidelines, Ms. Diaz sometimes offers her own story -- part reassurance, part marketing tool -- of spending six years trying to collect child support through the Texas Attorney General's Office. Then she found Mr. Hoffman, and got her money in eight weeks.

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Soon after, Mr. Hoffman offered her a job. One time it went on so long, she got in her car, drove to the office, and said, 'See those blinking lights on the phone?


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