MONTVILLE, N.J. -- When the knock on the door came before dawn, Dennis Levin hid in the master bedroom while his third wife went downstairs and tried to fend off the sheriff's deputies. Nothing doing.

Within minutes, the 40-year-old cosmetics salesman was whisked out of his six-bedroom suburban home, photographed, handcuffed and taken off to jail.

The charge: deadbeat dad.

Levin was one of 549 New Jerseyans arrested during the moonlit hours of Tuesday morning in a pre-holiday roundup of fathers alleged to have fallen behind in their child-support payments.

"We consider non-payment a form of child abuse," explained Morris County Sheriff John M. Fox, who dubbed the sweep a "grinch raid."

"These are Gestapo tactics," responded Bruce Eden, vice president of a statewide group concerned with custodial and support problems that arise from divorce.

New Jersey is in the forefront of a national crackdown on scofflaw fathers, one that runs the gamut from pre-dawn raids to 10-most-wanted lists, extraditions, wage garnishments, tax-refund intercepts and, increasingly, jail time.

The effort appears to reflect a societal backlash against the flight of men from the bonds of family life.

There is an emotionally charged debate about the wisdom of some of these tactics, but little dispute about the gravity of the cultural and demographic changes that have triggered them: Over the past 30 years, many American men have been engaged in a massive migration away from their children.

With divorce rates nearly tripling and out-of-wedlock birth rates more than quadrupling since 1960, demographers say, the typical American male spends a smaller portion of his adult life living with his children than ever before. In 1960, men between the ages of 20 and 49 spent an average of 12.3 years living in families with minor children; by 1980, that figure had fallen to 7 years, according to demographic calculations.

And as they spend less time with children, they spend less treasure. Only one child in three who lives outside his father's home receives financial support from dad. One-quarter of America's children live in fatherless homes, and they are the poorest households in the country. Nearly half fall below the official poverty line.

It is unclear how much a deadbeat-dad crackdown can do to change poverty patterns: Many delinquent fathers are themselves living on the edge of poverty. Nonetheless, the new enthusiasm of lawmakers for hard-hitting child support regulations is part of a broader concern over what is perceived as the declining role of men in raising their children and the fragility of the family.

"There's a growing realization that the increase in fatherlessness constitutes a clear and present danger not only to the children, but to the long-term health and success of our society," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a New York-based organization concerned with family issues.

Numerous studies show that, even after correcting for socioeconomic factors, children who grow up in fatherless families have more psychological problems and lower educational achievement.

"We have overflowing prisons and soaring homicides rates that testify to the cost of family breakdown," said Nicholas Zill, executive director of Child Trends Inc., a research group. "If the only thing a child knows about his father is that he isn't around, the father symbolizes lack of commitment and lack of reliability. It has a powerful effect on the value systems of those kids."

Why have so many dads flown the coop? Among the explanations:

The demise of low-skill, high-paying manufacturing over the past several decades has meant that many poorly educated young men no longer have the earning power to make viable marriage partners. Their lack of economic incentive to marry is compounded by a welfare system that funnels money to poor single mothers but not to poor married couples.

The movement of mothers into the paid work force has meant fathers have a less clearly defined "good provider" role in the family. Some men have adapted by increasing their domestic workload and child-nurturing responsibilties. Others have taken a hike.

The growing celebration of individual gratification in most Western cultures has led marriage to be seen increasingly as an institution that exists for needs of its adult members rather than its children. But adult gratification has proven to be an unstable foundation for marriage -- witness the divorce explosion.

"Fatherhood has always worked best as part of a package deal that involves both marriage and child-rearing," noted Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., a University of Pennsylvania sociologist. "It's hard to imagine a system where the father remains strongly involved with his kids but has no relationship with their mother."

According to a 1981 national survey of children 10 years after their parents' divorce, half of the children surveyed had not seen their non-custodial father at all in the previous year, and another sixth had seen him just once or twice.

Some fathers blame the court system for these attenuated relationships, noting that mothers are awarded sole custody of the children in about 90 percent of all divorces.

"We don't have absent parents so much as we have forced-away parents," said David L. Levy, president of the National Council for Children's Rights, which looks after the interests of non-custodial parents. "The courts insist on treating kids like property. One parent gets custody and the other is reduced to an absentee cash register with visitation rights."

While the law makes it clear that child-support payments have nothing to do with visitation rights, few of the fathers rounded up Tuesday in New Jersey observed the distinction.

"My ex-girlfriend has never let me spend a day with my daughter, so I say the hell with it," Norm Partica, 29, a mechanic who fathered a girl out of wedlock 15 months ago, said in a holding cell of the Morris County Jail. "She's not getting a dime from me until I can see my baby."

Partica, who was arrested for being $2,400 in arrears in court-ordered child-support payments of $52 per week, said he and his ex-girlfriend, a bartender, broke up before their baby was born. "I gave her $1,000 to pay for having the kid, and she used it to fix up her truck," he contended. "Now she's living with another guy who wants to adopt my baby."

Menachem Cohen, 43, a handyman in the next cell, was even more bitter. He said he has been contesting child-support payments for most of the 16 years he's been divorced, and the fighting has poisoned his relationship with his family. "If one of my daughters drops dead in front of me, I wouldn't pick her up -- that's the way I feel about it," he said.

Most of the men picked up Tuesday were blue-collar and many told the judge at their hearings that afternoon that they had fallen behind because they had lost jobs or suffered accidents or injuries. Those who could pay a percentage of their bills were permitted to leave; the rest were jailed until they could produce some funds.

The most prosperous of the group rounded up in Morris County was Levin, who said he earns $70,000 a year. His case was atypical in another way: He has joint custody of his two children by his first marriage.

Levin, who was picked up for being $7,426 in arrears, said he stopped making full payment in the spring after a judge raised his child-support payments to $350 a week, an award he is appealing. He was out of jail within a few hours, after his current wife arrived at the courthouse with a check for $1,500.

"We're being rounded up and handcuffed because it is politically expedient," said Levin, who is active in the New Jersey Council of Children's Rights. "Why don't they bring the camera crews out when the father goes to pick up his kids and the mother won't let him have them? Where's the sheriff then?"

New Jersey is not the only state to round up delinquent dads. Maryland has a similar program, with Montgomery and Prince George's among the most active counties. Virginia has a 10 Most Wanted list and the District of Columbia has been running pre-holiday public service announcements on cable television in which children appeal to their absent dads to pay their support.

This past fall, the automatic wage garnishment provision of the 1988 Family Support Act went into effect nationwide. Previously, wage garnishment only kicked in when a parent fell behind in payments; now it starts as soon as a support order is issued.

As a result of the increased effort, collection rates have been slowly increasing. In 1987, the mean amount of child support received by women with a court order was $2,710, a 15.9 percent increase over the previous two years.

Experts say it is unclear whether the stiffer enforcement will bring fathers back into the family fold. The demographic changes evident in the United States also are playing out -- on a less extreme scale -- in the rest of the Western world. They appear to be embedded in the economics and values of modern societies.

"We may not be able to make fathers feel more of their moral obligation," acknowledged Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a leader in pushing for stricter enforcement, "but we can make them pay their bills."