The D.C. government recovered a record $1.9 million last year from parents who had been evading child-support payments, but to get that money it spent $3.2 million, a ratio of costs to collections that was the worst in the country, according to recently published federal data.

Nationally, the government collected more than $1.5 billion in child-support payments last year and spent $512 million in the effort, for a ratio of $3.18 collected for every dollar spent. Maryland recovered $2.75 for each dollar spent and Virginia $1.40.

Washington, at 59 cents per dollar spent, ranked lower than any of the 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, according to 1981 statistics recently released by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. OCSE runs the six-year-old program, the main goal of which is reducing welfare costs by recovering money from absent parents whose children end up on welfare rolls.

"We have had some serious problems," acknowledged Eugene Brown, chief of the D.C. Bureau of Paternity and Child Support Enforcement. "But we are definitely improving, improving dramatically."

Indeed, armed for fiscal 1982 with a $900,000 budget increase, more than 40 new staff members and a new computer system, the city already has collected $2.6 million in nine months and projects more than $3 million for the year. But collecting that amount will cost more than $4.1 million.

Brown said comparing the District with other jurisdictions is unfair largely because Washington is an entirely urban area where unemployment is high and more than 50 percent of births are illegitimate, factors that make it particularly difficult to collect money from absent parents.

The program here has been plagued by year-long court backlogs, poor record keeping, a slow-moving bureaucracy and a lack of key legal powers that have made it difficult to find absent parents, get them into Superior Court promptly, and, most importantly, make sure they pay court-ordered sums, according to both federal and city officials.

"It takes so long getting cases to court that the word gets around that this is just a game. People treat it like a joke," said William Jenkins, a former bureau supervisor who now works for City Council member and mayoral candidate John Ray (D-At large).

More than 5,000 absent parents have failed to pay more than $12 million in overdue, court-ordered payments, according to city figures. The total backlog of cases in which absent parents have not yet even been brought to court is more than 30,000.

James A. Buford, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees the city program, acknowledged that the city has been slow to realize its money-making potential. "We are changing our thinking," Buford said.

In the last year, the city has added 37 employees at the bureau headquarters at 601 Indiana Ave. NW. Most of the 120 workers there are clerks and interviewers who take information from more than 4,000 mothers yearly. Mothers who apply and qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children are required to identify fathers and to give the government the right to keep their child-support payments to offset welfare costs.

The bureau has 17 investigators, seven added this year, who attempt to track down absent parents by using phone books, criss-cross directories, motor vehicle records and city tax rolls. If those methods fail, the city uses Internal Revenue Service and Social Security records to trace parents.

Brown said his bureau usually can locate about 90 percent of the fathers, depending on how cooperative the mothers are in providing information. Once the fathers are located, their cases are sent to the city Corporation Counsel's office, which brings them before the Superior Court family division.

The biggest logjam hindering the program, Brown said, has been an average one-year delay at the Corporation Counsel's office in filing the cases in court. "You locate a guy. You send a case over, and by the time you get a summons, he has moved twice and you lose him again," Brown said, "That makes a big difference in time and money."

"Our office simply wasn't able to handle all the cases filed," said Hugh Stevenson, supervising attorney of the Corporation Counsel's child-support unit.

Two years ago, he said, the unit was given almost 4,700 cases but was able to file only 2,600 in court because its staff of about seven people could not handle the workload. Since then, he said, the office has added 15 persons to its staff and is now filing more than 300 cases a month, compared to 185 before the expansion. The 12-month backlog has been reduced to about five months, he said.

Even when the city obtains a court order for child-support payments in welfare cases, only about 30 percent of the fathers actually make payments, according to city records.

Typically, a father will begin to be delinquent "almost as soon as you issue the order to pay money," said Karen M. Knab, director of the court's family division.

The city then must return to court, usually to seek an order to garnish the father's wages directly from his employer, she said. Frequently, she said, "the whole enforcement problem requires endless returns to court."

Starting this year, however, the city has begun using new legal tools to speed up collections and is proposing several new laws, modeled after those already enacted in many other states. A federal law passed in October allows the IRS to intercept tax refunds due to delinquent fathers, and the city has recovered more than $500,000 through that avenue.

In addition, starting next month, the city will also begin intercepting the D.C. income tax refunds of parents failing to pay court-ordered support, under a law introduced by Ray.

City officials are also proposing new "wage assignment" laws, in which the city could begin attaching a father's wages as soon as a court order is issued, without waiting to see whether he will make the ordered payments or not.

Other new legislation proposed by city officials would set up a new administrative procedure, in which hearing officers rather than Superior Court commissioners would issue child-support orders in uncontested cases. About 90 percent of the D.C. cases are uncontested, with fathers acknowledging paternity without a court battle.

Brown said the city's record would look considerably better if federal data reflected the more than $1 million yearly that the city collects on behalf of other states in cases in which fathers move to Washington for government-related jobs and fail to pay support back home. He said Washington handles a disproportionate number of such cases.

Daniel R. Fascione, OSCE's regional chief, acknowledged that factor, but also said it would be misleading to credit the D.C. agency for those collections because most of the work in such out-of-state cases is done by the requesting state, not the local staff.