Child support gets a support system

Project at a glance

Who: Office of Child Support Enforcement, Administration for Children and Families, Health and Human Services Department

Mission: To unify and speed up data sharing between states and the federal government to locate noncustodial parents who owe child support

What was: State agencies had to beg other state agencies for help, sometimes enlisting the courts to force employers or financial institutions to comply with the law. Requests often were made over the phone or in writing. Finding a nonpaying parent could take months, sometimes years.

What is: Employers and financial institutions have a congressional mandate to send states information regularly, which then goes into the national databases. Nightly batch processing transmits the updated content back to states by the next morning. Finding a nonpaying parent out of state often takes about 20 days.

Users: Fifty states and four territories, the IRS, Social Security Administration, Education Department and several other federal agencies

Impact: Speedier enforcement plus hundreds of millions more dollars collected for custodial parents and child support agencies

Duration: Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act authorizing these changes in 1996. By December 1999, the last piece was implemented. A few states are still updating their databases and taking them statewide. OCSE estimates it collects $4.13 for every $1 spent on child support enforcement.

Cost: OCSE officials don't know the total implementation costs, but fiscal 2002's operations and maintenance cost $18 million. The office estimates fiscal 2003 costs at $14 million.

'The ideas were incubated in the states. It's not as though the feds came up with this great technology idea, laid it on the states and demanded that they implement it.'

'OCSE Commissioner Sherri Z. Heller

Henrik G. de Gyor

OCSE, working with states, builds a better tracking system

For five years, Northern California child support enforcement officials tried to collect child support checks from a surgeon whose debts topped $300,000 and whose home address kept shifting.

Late in 1999, they found his bank account and automatically levied more than $91,000 from it. His ex-wife and two children received more than $72,000.

Officials denied another nonpaying parent's passport application because he owed $39,000 in child support. He paid the debt to clear the documents in time to fly to Finland and meet his new in-laws.

The 3-year-old Federal Parent Locator Service network made the critical discoveries in both cases.

The locator service has opened up lines of communication among four federal agencies, the 50 states and four territories, and thousands of employers and financial institutions.

Composed of several databases that were pieced together in December 1999, the service has given state enforcers more ways to find nonpaying parents who try to elude their responsibilities.

The job formerly took months or years of investigation.

Long arm of the law

'It used to be that the noncustodial parent left the state, and there was very little you could do about it,' said Michele Monahan, director of information and analysis for child support enforcement at Massachusetts' Revenue Department. 'You were pretty much useless.'

That changed with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which mandated a uniform database system that would extend beyond state borders.

Led by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement and housed at the Social Security Administration's national computer center in Baltimore, the locator service compiles and shares every state's data about nonpaying parents.

The service uses Computer Associates International Inc.'s eTrust CA-Top Secret access control and virtual private network technology. The OCSE system was designed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and is managed by SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

The locator service keeps each certified state database up to date about parental hirings, tax refunds, passport applications, bank accounts, quarterly wages, unemployment insurance and active child support cases. The updates arrive daily or quarterly, depending on when the data becomes available.

From 1996 until 1999, the components were known as the Federal Case Registry, National Directory of New Hires, Federal Offset Program, Passport Denial Program and Multistate Financial Institution Data Match. They came together online, funded by user fees and 2 percent of federal child support collections.

Congressional authorization and memoranda of understanding have allowed federal agencies such as SSA, IRS and the Education Department to tap into the network. They can cross-check overpayment of tax refunds and Social Security checks and nonpayment of school loans.

'We're saving tens of millions more dollars,' said Peter Monaghan, an SSA branch chief.

The Office of Child Support Enforcement, part of the Health and Human Services Department, does not yet have the dollar totals for building the locator service or the savings it brings. A contract recently awarded to Maximus Inc. of Reston, Va., will produce five-year strategic reviews.

The enforcement office has so far documented additional support payments of $1.5 billion from last year's intercepted tax returns and $27 million from denied passports.

SSA has reportedly saved more than $100 million annually from stopped overpayments of Social Security income to recipients working second jobs on the sly.

Education has reported collecting $726 million in delinquent loans since fiscal 2002.

In that same period, IRS saved $550 million in fraudulent claims from tax filings. Massachusetts in its last fiscal year collected $1.2 million through unearthed bank accounts of nonpaying parents.

Big payback

OCSE estimates it collects $4.13 for every $1 it spends on child support enforcement.

And the National Directory of New Hires has tipped off agencies to newly employed parents'and their health insurance plans. Last year, custodial parents received $91 million more in medical support for their children.

After the 1996 legislation passed, the support enforcement office decided to form working groups called seamless teams of federal, state, corporate and financial officials.

The office shipped out mailers to 6 million employers. Via calls and conferences, they met more than 150 times to hash out details of data sharing methods.

'The ideas were incubated in the states,' said Sherri Z. Heller, OCSE commissioner. 'It's not as though the feds came up with this great technology idea, laid it on the states and demanded that they implement it.'

Donna Bonar, associate commissioner for program operations and automation, said the office 'did a lot of outreach from the federal level so that we were all speaking the same message.'

Carrot and stick

Willing states shared a total payout of $450 million for collecting certain amounts through the locator service. But reluctant or unreliable states got docked millions in welfare block grants.
'Most of the problems were not technical but jurisdictional,' said Kathleen Adams, SRA director of health systems and formerly assistant deputy commissioner for systems at SSA. 'It's a real painstaking effort.'

A built-in incentive for the states was automation. The locator service replaced a manual, headache-inducing process whereby state employees would pick up the phone, call counterparts in other states and beg them to pursue leads. The service replaced written pleas to out-of-state employers and banks, asking for reams of information to track down a parent. Sometimes it replaced court intervention.

The former method 'was a long, complicated process and not all that successful,' Monahan said. 'You tend to give up. A case got put on a desk. A lot of times, it never got worked.'

Now employers and financial institutions are required to file such information with their states, which input it into the national databases. Via batch processing, it gets updated overnight and returned in the states' various database formats, sometimes before employees arrive at their desks the next morning.

As a result, a search for a nonpaying parent who takes a job in another state has been cut from several months to about 20 days after his or her first day on the new job.

OCSE is still looking for improvements. Heller said Congress is mulling proposals to allow interstate freezing of bank accounts and matches against national insurance claims and gambling winnings databases.

'For a lot of agencies, IT is only a support system,' Heller said. 'This is automation that states can use.'


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