Kathleen Lowery's marriage broke up in 1982. Since then, the Frederick County mother of two has been in and out of court, has obtained four contempt orders, and has piled up legal debts of close to $4,000 to force her ex-husband to pay the $700 a month in child support a judge awarded her two years ago.

Despite what Lowery said is her ex-husband's continued refusal to pay the full amount or on time, she has never been able to persuade a judge to order automatic deductions of the payments from his wages, which she estimates at $40,000 per year.

That experience led her to testify today before the House Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that would require judges to enter a lien order on wages automatically when they write child support orders. The lien would be activated if the custodial parent notifies the court that the other parent has fallen more than 30 days behind in making child support payments. The bill is designed to help custodial parents avoid costly legal battles and long delays in receiving the support.

A coalition of women and some senators here has pressed for a wage withholding law for years, saying taxpayers are too often forced to support families in which an absentee parent refuses to pay child support.

This year's bill was introduced in the wake of a federal law passed last spring, a fact that sponsors hope will make the state measure palatable to the generally conservative Judiciary Committee. The federal law requires the states to pass a wage lien law or face the loss of a part of federal aid to welfare grants.

Ann Helton, director of the state's Child Support Enforcement Administration, said her agency is helping people collect past due child support in 235,000 cases, of which 136,000 involve court orders. Of those, she said, 80 percent are in arrears by at least 60 days.

Lowery told the committee in a packed hearing room that her efforts to collect child support have damaged her health and piled up debts "from which I can see no end."

"I'm just appalled at how conscientious the courts are being about protecting the rights of the absent parent with little or no thought about the custodial spouse and the children," she said.

The child support bill discussed today has the support of Gov. Harry Hughes and was one of the first bills to pass the Senate this year. The House bill was sponsored by Del. Ida Ruben (D-Montgomery) and cosponsored by 89 other delegates, including 10 who are members of the Judiciary Committee. That committee and the full House passed a wage withholding bill last year, as did the Senate, but the measure died the last day of the session when the two houses could not reconcile differences in their language.