One of Margaret Heckler's legacies as secretary of health and human services is the strengthened federal child support enforcement program. Early in her tenure, Mrs. Heckler focused on the staggering problems of single parents trying to raise children, who are unable to collect court-ordered support payments. The number of households in need of such support has continued to rise -- there were 8.7 million in the spring of 1984 -- along with the divorce rate, but many millions are unable to collect even partial payments that have been ordered by the courts.

While in the past states have tried to recover payments from parents whose families are on welfare, more recently help has been available to nonwelfare parents too. Under a law passed with Secretary Heckler's strong support last year, states must take certain steps to help custodial parents collect support money. These include providing for automatic wage withholding of overdue child support payments, collecting such funds from state tax refunds, allowing the imposition of liens against real and personal property of defaulting parents and publicizing the availability of state child support enforcement services.

On Oct. 1, the clock began ticking for the states. Each must enact implementing legislation within four months after the end of the first session of the legislature adjourning after this date. In practical terms, this means that all the new laws must be in place before the spring of 1986. Twenty-two states have not waited. These jurisdictions have already implemented new programs conforming to the federal directive. The average annual court-ordered child support payment remains low. In 1983, it was $2,341. But the rate of collection is rising, and with federal encouragement and incentives the new state programs should make a dramatic difference.

Simple justice requires parents to support their own children, and those who put this burden on the taxpayer or on the custodial parent alone are not going to get away with it any longer. Mrs. Heckler's dedication and energy have helped the millions of families who will benefit from the new laws, and she can be proud of that accomplishment.