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One State's Lesson on Tracking Absent Dads

President Clinton drew fire this week for a controversial proposal to penalize welfare mothers who don't provide the government with information that could help locate deadbeat dads.

This facet of welfare reform is already being tested in five states and has been challenged in the courts in three of them. The president's proposal may avoid some of the legal problems by allowing exceptions for women who can't provide information about the fathers of their children.

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The Clinton plan would cut $90 from women's monthly Aid to Families with Dependent Children checks.

In Massachusetts this spring, the welfare office suspended its policy of penalizing women who did not provide specifics about their children's father after a court ruled that claims of sex discrimination and discrimination against children born out of wedlock were valid under state law. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's office is drafting a new paternity-information policy.

Cases like Donna Zawacki's, a welfare mother in Lynn, Mass., were common during the first four months that the policy was in place. She was threatened with sanctions even though she provided the name, place of employment, and Social Security number of her child's father. The agency said the Social Security number was false. Ms. Zawacki claims the state did not follow up on the employment information she provided.

Deborah Harris, the lawyer for the class-action suit that challenged the Massachusetts policy, says that lack of follow through by the state is the main problem with this kind of rule. "We're yet again demonizing welfare mothers ... rather than [criticizing] the state's failure to follow up on information when it has it and its failure to create a climate in which mothers feel that they can provide information without danger to their children or themselves," she says.

Ninety percent of single parents on welfare do provide the required information about the absent parent, says Vicki Turetsky, an attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. "The real problem is with the states not the parents."

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