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March 28, 2000     (512) 463-0300

UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON LAW SCHOOL HOSTS SENATE JURISPRUDENCE COMMITTEE

HOUSTON - The Senate Jurisprudence Committee held a public hearing Tuesday, March 28, 2000 in Krost Hall at the University of Houston Law School. Members of the committee include Senators Rodney Ellis of Houston serving as chair, Chris Harris of Arlington, J.E. 'Buster' Brown of Lake Jackson, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.

The committee is hearing testimony relating to charges issued by Lt. Governor Rick Perry for study during the interim. Charges include methods of improving the enforcement of child custody orders in Chapter 153 of the Family Code; and monitoring the implementation of Senate Bill (SB) 368, passed in the 76th Legislature, Regular Session. SB 368 relates to court-ordered child support, including the child support enforcement functions of the Office of Attorney General and the sunset review of those functions. SB 368 also monitors the implementation of the child support enforcement provisions of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 within the established time requirements.

The committee began with invited testimony on child support enforcement functions of the Office of Attorney General. Harris County District Clerk Charles Bacarisse and Howard Baldwin, Deputy Attorney General and Director of the Child Support Division testified about improving public interaction with the agency. Baldwin testified about changes made in the Houston area call center to service clients more efficiently, reducing long telephone waits to an average of 16 seconds. Most calls are now handled through an automated system which gives the majority of callers the information they are seeking. Rather than routing all calls through the Austin office, areas with a large number of cases now have local call centers. Another improvement to assist citizens is the availability of a secured web site to provide information to clients using the Internet. Since its introduction in September of 1999, there have been over 100,000 visits to the new web site. Bacarisse testified about difficulties that counties have in some enforcement issues, particularly in securing IRS tax returns from individuals with delinquent accounts.

Senators asked questions regarding enforcement issues including garnishing of wages and IRS checks, and about the success of new methods allowed by last year's legislature including revocation of hunting and fishing licenses. Health care issues were also the subject of questions by members. Integration of the new Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIPs) and the Texas Healthy Kids in the efforts of enforcement were of particular interest. Methods of distributing information using utility bills and other regularly delivered mail were options discussed.

The next panel of invited guests testified regarding Chapter 153 of the Family Code. Testimony began with Sharron Wall representing the Harris County Domestic Relations Office and Assistant Director David Simpson. Jane Waters testified representing the Harris County District Attorney's Office, Family Criminal Division.

Stewart Gagnon, an attorney from Houston, testified that enforcement of the laws in Texas were weak. Gagnon stated that new options may help, but he feels there too many judicial methods to circumvent enforcement. Ellen Yarrell, also an attorney from Houston, testified about the difficulty of working out visitation agreements in mediation only to have a 'Friend of the Court' change the agreement because it is considered not enforceable. The Harris County Domestic Relations Office acts as a 'Friend of the Court'. Ms. Wall clarified for the committee that their office only changes things the judge wants changed, due to the difficulty of enforcing such decrees.

Professor Ellen Marrus of the University of Houston Law School testified about parenting classes. Marrus feels the classes are a good idea, but they are too short, suggesting that parents should attend for 3 or 4 weeks for 6 to 8 hours. Professor Laura Oren, also of the University of Houston Law School, testified about new solutions to the problems of child custody and the potential new problems resulting from the new policies. Oren stated the laws in Texas are sound, and that educating parents and assisting people in obtaining the legal representation they need would improve the system.

Alicia Nuzzie testified representing the Houston Area Women's Center. Nuzzie testified on the necessity of supervised visitation in the cases of domestic violence, the need for more visitation centers, and access to legal representation.

Public testimony was received from Denise O'Lawler of New Braunfels. O'Lawler had problems with the District Clerk's office in New Braunfels retaining child support checks for over one year and refusing to enforce the court-ordered child support decree. She thanked the senators for their help in arrainging a meeting to resolve the problems. Augie Schroeder, a single parent, testified about the problems of trying to collect child support and not being an AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) recipient.

The committee stands recessed subject to the call of the chair. The committee will report its findings in the form of a report to be used in forming legislation for consideration by the 77th Legislature.

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