The February issue of McCall's magazine ran an article entitled "Child Support -- Getting Tough With Fathers Who Don't Pay." At the end, there was a notice telling readers who wanted more information to send a self-addressed envelope to the Children's Foundation in Washington. In the last three weeks, the foundation has received 1,400 letters requesting help, an outpouring of testimony to the magnetude of the problem.

Many women told wrenching stories of their struggle to keep their families together in the face of poverty brought on by the fathers' failure to pay court-ordered support. From Lafayette, La., a woman wrote:

"I raised four children without child support and welfare. He finally paid $52 for Sandra who was 17. Then Sandra turned 18 -- and he dropped her after only one check of $52 in 12 years. I went to the D.A. office and he said he was within his right because she had turned 18. It didn't mean anything that he owed all this back child support or the fact that she was still in school . . . . Our children are now 23, 22, 21, and 16 and he may have paid $800 total in 15 years for four children. I stayed off welfare by working three jobs.

"I thought about killing my children and myself when they were small and I could get no one to help or listen. But we made it. Please let me know if I can help."

And from Spring City, Pa.: "I've been trying to get back support from my ex-husband for about three or four years. At one time I called three different agencies and they refused to help as it was a 'domestic' problem. He has not bothered with the children for years and has eluded about three parent locator attempts. I have three children and rather than go on welfare I decided to work . . . . He was on welfare himself and a court order was put on his welfare check for $25 a week . . . but I never received a cent . . . . My ex-husband is about $18,000 in arrears and nothing is done. I'm sure you must know the bitterness I feel."

"They're wrenching -- and typical," says Barbara Bode, president of the Children's Foundation, of the letters.

Last year, Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments, which considerably strengthened the nation's collection system by requiring each state to develop an effective system of tracking deadbeat parents and collecting support from parents of children who are both off and on welfare. The new law requires states to withhold child support money from the absent parent's wages if he falls more than a month behind, and it also requires states to speed up the judicial process for handling these cases and to implement effective systems for collecting from parents who have moved out of state. Most provisions of the new law become effective this October.

The Children's Foundation has established a Child Support Enforcement Project, which is distributing fact sheets informing parents about the enforcement offices in their states, what the law currently requires, what the new law provides, and a summary educating women on problems they are likely to encounter and how to handle them. The project, being directed by a volunteer who spent a decade trying to collect support for her children, plans to give individual attention to the most urgent pleas for help and develop a national system for monitoring the new law. It also plans to develop support groups and to link parents writing for help to existing groups.

The Children's Foundation has approached foundations and corporations for funding for the project, but with one exception, "the foundations and corporations we have approached . . . view the issue as too dicey," says Bode. "Now that Congress and the administration have overcome their own reluctance to deal with the problem and have enacted fairly good initial legislation, one would think that donor hesitance would have abated -- but it hasn't."

About $4 billion in court-ordered child support was uncollected by the federal government in 1984. The Census Bureau estimated that in 1983, 2.1 million parents were delinquent and fewer than half of the 4 million women -- and 10 million children -- who had court-ordered support received the full amount.

"No matter how much federal legislation changes, it is meaningless if the people meant to be helped by it don't know what to do," says Bode. Single mothers who are not getting child support often don't have the money to hire legal assistance and have no idea where to turn. The Children's Foundation project can fill the gap between help and helplessness and financially stabilize families in poverty and despair. It deserves support.