WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nearly two million deadbeat fathers who owed child support failed to make any payments in 1997, the Census Bureau reported.

While the Census Bureau report being released Friday also shows that more custodial parents were getting full-time jobs and leaving public assistance programs, advocacy groups contend the numbers highlight glaring weaknesses of a child support system in transition.

Of the 6.3 million U.S. mothers owed child support from absentee fathers in 1997, roughly 30 percent or 1.99 million women, did not receive any payments, Census data show. Four years earlier, 1.72 million women owed support, or 29 percent, did not receive payments.

About 42 percent, or 289,000 of the 674,000 fathers owed child support in 1997 from absentee mothers did not receive any payments. That was down from 353,000 deadbeat mothers, or 45 percent, in 1993, in the same category.

The Census survey, taken every two years, is the nation's only estimate of all child support paid and owed across the country, including private agreements between parents. The Department of Health and Human Services has more recent figures, but only tracks cases that go through government collections systems.

``It's a pretty sad statement that nothing's improved much and kids are going without much needed support payments for food, clothing and shelter,'' said Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.

Child support enforcement was overhauled in 1996 as part of welfare reform. Since then there have been other new outreach initiatives _ such as helping fathers who cannot afford to pay child support find jobs _ that improved the situation, HHS spokesman Michael Kharfen said.

The full effects of reform won't be seen until results from the 1999 survey come out next year since many states took years to make necessary changes, Kharfen said.

``It shows early efforts to improving the child support system,'' he said. ``But this is still very encouraging news which is consistent with what we're seeing.''

``How much time are we supposed to give it, though?'' countered Bordy Brilling, of Phoenix, who has been divorced since 1992 and has custody of two teenage daughters. ``It's been a constant battle through the years'' getting child support from her husband in Georgia. He is now battling cancer.

``We don't know how it all works, and that's part of our frustration,'' said Philene O'Keefe, of Indian Hills, Nev. Since divorcing in 1998 and gaining custody of her 3-year-old daughter, O'Keefe says she received a child support check this week, the first one since January.

The report also said:

_45 percent of mothers living in poverty who were owed child support in 1997 received no payments, compared with 35 percent of impoverished mothers owed support in 1993.

_51.3 percent of all custodial parents had year-round, full-time jobs in 1997, up from 45.6 percent in 1993.

_the percentage of all custodial parents participating in at least one public assistance program such as food stamps or Medicaid fell to 34 percent in 1997, from 40.6 percent in 1993.

_the proportion of all custodial parents receiving all the payments they were due increased from 34.1 percent in 1993 to 40.8 percent in 1997.

Sherry Steisel, human services director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, attributed the positive numbers to the good economy, and efforts to improve child support on the state level that began even before the 1996 reforms.

``We see the participation in public programs declining, and an increase in the number of agreements which is the first step in getting child support acknowldeged,'' she said.