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Author Topic: Child support burdened by the new system  (Read 2952 times)


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Child support burdened by the new system
« on: Dec 07, 2003, 11:45:46 AM »
Child support burdened by the new system
Rush to meet deadline leads to mass confusion

By Adam Emerson
Lansing State Journal

A $459 million computer system meant to make life easier for families paying and receiving child support is so riddled with problems it could be years before it works effectively, child-support leaders say.

In some cases, parents who pay support are getting notices that they're not.

Money isn't reaching the families who need it.

And an already big bureaucracy inside county court offices has grown statewide, making answers hard to find, families say.

Even state leaders concede Michigan's Child Support Enforcement System was rushed to completion. But they were facing $147 million in federal fines that would have jumped by $60 million if they didn't get all 83 counties on the same system by Sept. 30.

It's that race that created a high-maintenance system with problems that will take months to fix, officials say.

"It's hard to see any discernible progress," said Jeff Albaugh, president of Michigan's Friend of the Court Association.

"Clients will see some improvements at mid- to late next year. But it'll take three to five years before we see huge, material, obvious results."

Marilyn Stephen, director of the state Office of Child Support, acknowledges the problems the state is scrambling to correct - and will spend millions more in the next three years to do so.

The system processes $30 million in child-support payments weekly, but in a number of cases it fails to process them correctly.

Every two weeks, Bruce Chandler of Munith pays toward his $4,000 child-support arrearage. The state processes the money and then, because of a computer glitch, sends it back to him. So the Ingham County Friend of the Court, seeing the money didn't reach its destination, warned him he was behind in his obligation.

Chandler said when he contacted his caseworker to complain, "She knew when I called that I was just the next one in line."

At a time when local officials are stepping up child-support enforcement, the new system is leading Chandler and thousands like him to ask questions. Here are some of the answers.

Why the need for a statewide enforcement system? What is happening in other states?

The 1996 federal welfare-reform law, noting that child support was processed in a splintered way by local governments, required each state to create a central office to process support by 1999. Nearly all of the states, facing multi-million-dollar penalties if they missed the deadline, rushed to finish their plans.

Most experienced problems like Michigan's. Thousands of checks were delayed in Nevada. North Carolina made $5 million in emergency payments to frustrated families. In Ohio, among the latest to make the switch, critics say the system has delayed checks, sent the wrong amounts or sent money to the wrong people.

Stephen, a former Jackson County prosecutor who joined the Office of Child Support last year, said Michigan was faced with an "impossible task."

"The nearest a state that I know has completed a system was in five years," Stephen said. "It was done in Michigan in 2 1/2 years."

Critics of the rushed implementation point out that the deadline had loomed since 1996.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees states' child-support enforcement, certified Michigan's system last month. It was one of the last states to comply. With that certification, Michigan will get back $35 million of the $68 million in fines it's already paid.

Now the state must show the federal government the system works effectively every year, or it could face penalties, such as a reduction in federal funding.

What is this system supposed to do? What are the problems?

The system is meant to streamline child-support payments and enforcement under a state umbrella. County Friends of the Court had been the traditional overseers of the operation.

With $7 billion in child-support owed in Michigan, the state promised the system would automate actions against parents who don't pay. It would be easier to issue bench warrants, seize taxes and yank licenses from deadbeats.

But what resulted when Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties switched to the system in June was frustration for many.

For instance, the system misread about 3,000 of 21,000 addresses in Ingham County, delaying checks and court notices. Elsewhere, tax returns seized from deadbeats were sent back to them.

Of the 800,000 child-support cases in the state, 250,000 clients call the state hot-line each week, Stephen said. Some just want to inquire about payments. But more than 15,000 clients call the Friends of the Court.

Counties can do little to help them, Friends of the Court say. After the computer conversion in Ing-ham, calls to caseworkers tripled at the same time their ability to resolve problems and release money ended.

"Every time there's a problem, I have to beg someone at the state to make a change," said Donald Reisig, Ingham County's Friend of the Court.

When will people start to see the system's benefits?

Stephen predicts that Friends of the Court and families will see more benefits in a year.

But Albaugh, the state's Friend of the Court Association president and Calhoun County Friend of the Court, isn't convinced.

He said while problems are fixed monthly, new ones continually surface.

Karen Murton, 40, of DeWitt Township only recently received two checks the state cashed on Oct. 14 and Oct. 22. Her ex-husband has been sending $250 checks to the Lansing disbursement unit every week. But they weren't reaching Murton and her two children, ages 9 and 7, who had been receiving support under the previous county system.

Murton finally got the checks - money she relies on monthly - after Clinton County Friend of Court pushed the state to act.

"People receiving support are having their telephones shut off, their electricity shut off," she said. "These are single parents - male and female. This has caused a lot of problems."

One of the worst problems, court workers say, involves those who are paying off an arrearage, as ordered by a judge.

After the state switch over, the computer didn't recognize the payment arrangements parents had made with county judges. It saw only arrearages. Some people were threatened with having their driver's licenses revoked or their debt reported to a credit bureau.

Stephen said it could be months before that problem is corrected.

When will the problems be fixed? And whose job is it to fix these problems?

Fixes have been made monthly for some problems - such as the garbled addresses. But after this week, no more will be made until May.

That's because the state has hired Bermuda-based Accenture to fix and maintain the system installed by another vendor.

Denver-based Policy Studies Inc., which state leaders say performed an "impossible task" in installing and launching the system by Sept. 30, lost the bid to maintain its own software.

Accenture has to learn the system before it can begin repairing and upgrading it. So only "emergency fixes" will be made before May, said James Fricke, the state's director of the system.

The move to Accenture is not a knock against Policy Studies Inc., Stephen said. The state wanted to go with a "better value" and Accenture will better perform long-term enhancements to the software, she said.

Controversy swirled in 2000 when the state canceled its bidding process on the statewide computer system and issued a no-bid, multimillion-dollar contract to Policy Studies. The firm was uniquely qualified to complete the task on a tight deadline, state leaders said.

Policy Studies proposed building a statewide system by adapting one used in Wayne County, and it had developed a precursor to the current system.

Policy Studies' contract with Michigan ends Dec. 31. This time, the state wanted "a level playing field" in bidding out the project, Stephen said.

How much will this cost taxpayers?

Accenture secured a three-year, $44 million contract for basic maintenance to the system. Enhancements to the system will cost the state an additional $7 million to $10 million each year for the next three years.

Local officials question hiring Accenture to maintain a system it didn't put in place.

"What you need on a system like this is stability," said Barbara Hamm, head of the family division of the Ing-ham County Prosecutor's Office, which establishes the initial child-support order. "It's got to be reliable. Right now, it isn't.

"It's affecting people.

"It shouldn't be this difficult."

Contact staff writer John Schneider for matters related to child-suppport enforcement.

He can be reached at 377-1175 or jschneid@lsj.com.



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A local news station in Detroit did a week long expose' on this
« Reply #1 on: Dec 08, 2003, 09:13:58 AM »
a few months ago.  MI FOC has been in bad shape since day one.  CP's knew NCP's were paying but couldn't get the money from FOC.

Personally, I think MI needs to get off the weekly system, and go strictly to a monthly system.  It would unburden the system some.


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