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Look who's meddling in the ugliest of divorces

Even after a few days in the capital, the anguish in the voice of the man from Clearwater ricochets in my head.

His ex kicked out the kids, he told me. He's got them now, but he's still sending her the child support checks. The courthouse is so clogged with divorces it would take a couple of months to get back before a judge who might stop the payments, but he can no longer afford a lawyer to get there.

His voice telegraphs his despair and a suspicion that he's utterly alone.

It is cold comfort to tell him he isn't.

In the files of a state representative, Republican Evelyn Lynn of Volusia County, are letters with all the pain of the Clearwater man, letters that reveal the fractured lives so many of us endure.

A Tallahassee woman writes that her ex-husband has spent more on divorce lawyers than on the child support he refuses to pay. The bill is $14,000.

A man from Lutz says his ex-wife took the kids out of state and went on welfare. Then HRS came after him to pay her the child support she had previously refused from him.

A man from St. Petersburg accuses his ex of letting their kids become truant so they remain longer in high school. The longer they are in school, the more child support she can collect.

Still another man writes from Atlantic Beach that his current wife cannot persuade a judge to stop her ex-husband visiting their kids, even though the ex is an abusive drunk who doesn't pay a dime for their care.

Lynn gets the letters because she is the chairwoman of the House Committee on Family Law and Children. The letter writers all clamor for legal changes, particularly in the way child support is calculated and collected. They are angry at their lawyers, the judges, the Department of Revenue that now collects support payments.

Soon, they'll have more people to get mad at.

When Congress changed the federal welfare law last summer, it ordered states to crack down on the people who don't pay child support.

Florida must soon have a central registry of the names of all people who owe child support, and another registry where every employer must list the name of every person he hires, so that those who owe child support can be tracked down.

Eventually, you'll have to list your Social Security number on virtually every state license you obtain _ even your marriage license _ so the number can be used to help find you if you turn your back on your family responsibilities. If you don't pay, even credit agencies will know about it. If you don't pay and your money is squirreled away someplace else other than an ordinary bank account, a mutual fund for instance, the government will be able to go after that, too.

You don't have to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU to think this smacks of Big Brother. You don't have to be a fiscal conservative to know this will cost the state millions. The state Revenue Department wants to hire another 750 people to work on child support problems.

The federal law tells states that parents have the right to go to court every three years to challenge their child support payments. This is supposed to put some fairness back ino the system. But it also will jam up the courts even more, if that's possible.

Last week in the Capitol, Rep. Lynn's committee spent hours talking about these issues. Reporters are expected to dog the government, point out the wrongs. By that logic, I ought to be banging on the courthouse doors for the man from Clearwater, I ought to be in Rep. Lynn's face, barking a question about what is she going to do and when.

The scene in those committee rooms, as lawmakers wrestled with custody and child support questions, worked a strange change in me. The question is not for Rep. Lynn to answer, but the rest of us: Isn't it foolish to expect that government can do what people refuse to do themselves, in their homes and hearts?

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