Despite widespread concern about the well-being of families in the District, thousands of low-income, single mothers must wait years before they can establish the legal paternity of their children and collect much needed child-support payments.

Nearly 20,000 individual families are now suffering as a result of our clogged paternity-establishment system. Meanwhile, the District must help support children (under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program) who should be receiving support from their fathers.

Under a new federal law, the District also faces strict deadlines for locating absent parents, establishing paternity and enforcing support obligations. It has only nine months, for example, to process thousands of paternity cases now pending. If it fails to meet the federal deadline, it will be assessed penalties -- a major fiscal burden for a city already struggling to pay its bills.

Last fall more than 20 high-ranking D.C. officials (including Irma Neal, chief of the Office of Paternity and Child Support Enforcement, and Arlene Robinson, chief of the Corporation Counsel's child-support unit), family-law specialists and advocates joined a task force convened by the Women's Legal Defense Fund. The task force's legislative subcommittee worked with D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark in developing a bill to address problems of paternity establishment and child support. The bill, which Rolark introduced on Jan. 8, would:

Provide for the legal establishment of paternity by voluntary consent. In the District, 90 percent of the child-support cases begin as paternity-establishment cases. In many instances, both parents agree on who the father is, yet they must file suit and appear in court to establish official paternity. By giving parents a simple, out-of-court procedure for establishing their child's paternity, voluntary consent would substantially alleviate the overload of cases now clogging the District's system.

Create a special police department unit. This unit would execute paternity bench warrants and assist in service of process in difficult child support cases. Now only the U.S. Marshal's office has the power to execute bench warrants; its almost total failure to do so is a chronic problem. This function is too critical to rest with an unresponsive entity that is independent of and unaccountable to the District. This authority should be transferred to a special police unit that can be financed through federal funds.

Repeal the prohibition on service of process and execution of bench warrants on Sundays. In child-support cases, service of process is a prerequisite for obtaining a child-support order, and Sunday is often the best day to serve fathers at home.

Make service by certified mail valid even if unclaimed or refused by respondent, if made in conjunction with first-class mail that is not returned undelivered. The requirement for personal service of process needlessly increases operating costs. Legalizing service with a combination of certified and first-class mail could result in an estimated savings of more than $200,000 a year. To protect fathers' due-process rights, this method of service would not be sufficient in default cases.

Emergency legislation to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of paternity in the District is crucial. It would substantially improve the child-support system, generate revenue for the District through federal matching funds and save millions in AFDC payments and federal penalties. But most important, the bill, by providing needed income to single-parent families, would improve the day-to-day lives of thousands of the District's children. -- Nkechi Taifa is a public policy counsel for Family Law Programs, Women's Legal Defense Fund.