Central child support collection systems elusive

Central child support collection systems elusive

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

States are struggling to establish statewide child support collection systems in response to a federal mandate, but overwhelming caseloads and technical problems are delaying payments and frustrating courts and human services departments.

In Illinois and most other states, child support payments had been processed on the county level. Only Washington and New York had historically centralized child support collection systems (see story, next page).

The two were supposed to be the model states: Big states would follow the New York model, and small and medium states would look to Washington, said Debbie Kline, spokeswoman for the Association for Child Support Enforcement. But all the states did not centralize their systems, she said.

Congress first ordered states to build child support tracking systems by Oct. 1, 1995, in the Family Support Act. Only Montana met the deadline, Kline said.

Deadline extended

Congress revisited the issue in its 1996 welfare reform legislation. That bill gave states more time but demanded additional system components: case-order and new-hire registries, and centralized payment disbursement offices. States would also face penalties if they missed the deadline.

The federal Health and Human Services Department is certifying states conditionally, even though they may be missing an entire component, Kline said.

Illinois and North Carolina were certified conditionally, she said.

As of Jan. 6, nine states'California, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio and South Carolina'and the District of Columbia were not certified.

Nebraska will face up to $3.6 million in federal penalties because it will not make the Oct. 1 deadline for centralization, officials said.

California and Ohio will lose a combined $118 million in federal funds this year because they do not have the proper computer systems in place, Kline said. Even in states that have complied, centralization is not going smoothly, she said.

The situation in Illinois became so critical last year that Gov. George Ryan asked more than 300 utility companies to waive late fees and penalties for certain families because thousands of state child support checks were delayed, state officials said.

'It is better than it was, but two people called this week who received three checks in November and then nothing since then,' said Gary L. Bickel, Circuit Court clerk for rural Piatt County.

Illinois charged DuPage County, the state's second-largest county, with management of its State Disbursement Unit (SDU), which handles statewide child support payments. DuPage's caseload skyrocketed from 250,000 to 5.5 million when it began processing checks for all 102 counties, officials said.

'The Illinois Association of Circuit Clerks wanted one of their own' to do the work, said Joyce Jackson, communications chief for the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

DuPage County Circuit Court clerk Joel Kagann said that if he had it to do over again he wouldn't agree to manage SDU. The difficulties are compounded by systems problems and data management problems, he said.

DuPage wrote the SDU program in Lotus Notes, and the program failed the first month, Bickel said.

Also, there was no interface between the DuPage system and those of most of the circuit courts.

'Everything has to be done manually, which makes it more work than before,' Bickel said. 'We can't tell if changes [we sent] have been made to the system.'

The DuPage system is simply overloaded, Bickel said. When counties would dial in, 'SDU would be so busy uploading or downloading, counties would be put in a holding pattern,' he said. As a result, some counties got telephone bills for $1,500 to $1,600, he said.

Employers a problem

The Public Aid Department will reimburse counties for the phone expenses caused by the system's logjam, Jackson has said. The department has also agreed to pay for programmers to write an interface for the circuit courts.

But even after the system kinks are worked out, DuPage faces tricky data management problems with information from employers who have garnished wages of parents who owe child support, Kagann said.

'The companies are just unbelievable in what they've sent in,' Kagann said. 'I've got a payroll that they sent to us, [but] has nothing to do with a state disbursement unit. [We] get checks without a single thing on the check or 30 accounts listed,' he said.

Big companies pushed for the centralized systems in the first place, Kagann said. They wanted to send just one check, rather than checks to multiple counties.

'Most problems are with the employers, getting the correct data from them,' Jackson said. Part of the problem is confusion, she said. Some checks are supposed to go to SDU, but some should be sent to the circuit court as before.

DuPage has to weed out those checks first, which takes up additional time and personnel.

But even the clerks don't use a standard format in assigning case numbers, Kagann said. Some use hyphens, so there will be 99-d-1 for a case number, for instance, instead of 99d1.

'The computer says, 'Wait a minute, I'm looking for an alpha character, not a dash,' ' Kagann said.

At one time, Illinois had a backlog of about 8,900 checks, but that's down to roughly 3,500, Jackson said.

The state ran a pilot with Cook County, the state's largest county, which includes Chicago.

Problems remain, mainly with rural counties, Jackson said. Checks for DuPage and Cook seem to be going out as scheduled, she said.

Audit ordered

Ryan and the Legislature ordered separate audits of SDU, and the Public Assistance Department contracted with Bank One Corp. of Chicago for an internal audit of SDU's computer systems.

'As a clerk of the court, I believe it's the most stupid law that was ever passed. You took a good system that was working and you made chaos out of it,' Kagann said.

'It has been a disaster. We are running two shifts and starting to get our head above water, and someone comes and drops 11,000 pieces of mail on us,' he said.

Kagann will soon get some relief. DuPage County will not renew its contract when it expires at the end of June, Kagann said. The state is considering outsourcing SDU management. DuPage will assist in the transition, he said.

Barry Miller, chief of child support enforcement for North Carolina, shares Kagann's concerns about centralization. Although the federal government meant well, 'we had a wonderfully efficient process as it was,' Miller said.

'We had 24-hour turnaround' under the decentralized system, he said. 'Now, depending on where [counties] are in the state, three to five days have been added to the front end. It takes that long just to get to the centralized point through the mail.'

But there shouldn't be a delay if the state implements electronic funds transfer, said the Association for Child Support Enforcement's Kline.

Storm damage

North Carolina hired a private contractor to manage its payment disbursement office.

The state's problems were not related to the systems but to the fact that the vendor did not staff adequately, Miller said.

Systems and Methods Inc. (SMI) of Carrollton, Ga., however, couldn't be blamed because there was a huge backlog resulting from Hurricane Floyd, he said.

Post offices and clerks of courts in two counties were out of service, and 30 other post offices had delays after the storm ravaged the state last fall, he said.

'We didn't anticipate such a backlog,' Miller said. The caseload 'jacked higher much quicker than expected. So we stumbled and staggered along for 60 days.'

Miller said he believes most of North Carolina's problems are solved. SMI processed 1.3 million payments totaling $143.3 million in three months.

Kline disagrees. North Carolina has systems problems, and the state didn't run a pilot before implementing the system, she said.

California will lose $103 million in federal aid this year because of noncompliance, and state officials said they didn't know whether the state would have a centralized system in place by next year.

In late 1997, California terminated its contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. to design a centralized system, after estimated contract costs ballooned from $99 million to $345 million. California is still in litigation with Lockheed Martin.

California turned to its Franchise Tax Board, which handles revenue collections, to develop a system.

'We've had success in developing big systems,' FTB spokesman Jim Shepherd said. '[We've] built systems in the past by going out into the community.'

FTB, which has historically assisted counties in collecting child support, will design the system. The state has also created a Child Support Services Department, which will be the end user of the system.

'Right now we are in the development stage,' Shepherd said. Meanwhile, California has been using a combination of four separate systems, said Anita Gore, spokeswoman for the state's Health and Human Services Department.

GCN/State & Local associate editor Claire E. House contributed to this story.


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