ALTHOUGH there have been a number of letters published on several of the subjects raised in Fatimah Ali's May 26 column on unpaid child support, I am writing to correct some of her impressions regarding enforcement of support orders by Family Court.

Ms. Ali wrote that she did not petition the courts to issue an arrest warrant for her former husband's "blatant disregard of our children's needs." This is not the procedure to obtain or enforce a child-support order. According to my chief of child support, Maria McLaughlin, any custodial parent can, without a lawyer, go to Family Court and file a complaint for support.

The staff will help file a complaint and list the case for a conference at which a support order will be determined based on the support guidelines used throughout the state. If no agreement is reached, the case will be referred for further hearings. At no time can a custodial parent come to Family Court and request or have an "arrest warrant" issued for a noncustodial parent.

Ms. Ali also said she didn't come to court to request child support because she "didn't want to have to take our children to visit him in jail because I knew it would be traumatic. But mostly I realized that being arrested would prevent him from working."

While this creates a dramatic scenario, it has no basis in fact. According to child-support prosecutor Joan Esmonde, enforcement of child support occurs in civil, not criminal, court. This is a legal distinction, but a very important one; it means that a person cannot be jailed as a "punishment" for failing to pay child support.

This is quite different from being sentenced for a crime such as burglary, etc. where one is clearly being punished for his actions. A person incarcerated for child support is never sent to a state prison. The maximum sentence for a finding of civil contempt in a child-support case is six months, with most being for 30 days.

In addition, a judge must always set a purge amount, the amount that, if paid, allows the payer to be released. The person sentenced to jail can leave any time payment is made.

The child-support enforcement unit of the D.A.'s office has been prosecuting child support cases for decades.

Every day, assistant district attorneys ask Family Court judges to enforce child support orders. Sometimes these requests include requests for incarceration, and in almost every case, the payer "miraculously" finds the purge payment while still in the Family Court cell, before transportation to the Detention Center.

In a small number of cases, a payer is held for a few days, in rare cases the entire sentence is served. In virtually every case, a payer is not incarcerated long enough to jeopardize employment.

Contrary to Ms. Ali's conclusion, a finding of contempt, and a sentence of incarceration, is not a "stupid idea." It is an extremely effective tool to obtain the support children are entitled to.

The purpose of incarceration is not only to obtain a lump-sum payment on past-due support, but to compel the payer to make all future payments.

While there are many deep scars that a neglectful parent leaves on a child in addition to not paying child support, failure to provide for a child's basic needs should not be minimized, nor should it be ignored when the law provides a recourse.

Lynne Abraham

District Attorney

City of Philadelphia