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Michigan glitches snarl child support

Started by joni, Mar 07, 2004, 08:22:12 AM

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Snags in state's $459 million system don't give dads credit, leave kids without money

By Gary Heinlein, and Kim Kozlowski / The Detroit News

John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News
Michigan's child support system

* Approximately $30 million in support is disbursed each week.

* Michigan collected $1.4 billion in child support last year, third highest among the 50 states. Michigan has the second largest support caseload in the nation.

* By changing to a centralized computer tracking system in October in compliance with a federal deadline, Michigan avoided $147.5 million in federal penalties.

Source: State of Michigan

WEBBERVILLE — A federally mandated $459 million record-keeping system, intended to correct Michigan's creaky, mistake-filled process for tracking payments to parents and their children, has instead caused a new wave of problems for those paying and receiving child support.

Rather than streamline services to 2.5 million adults and kids affected by nearly 800,000 child support orders, the new computer system has created errors and added headaches for parents and hard-pressed Friend of the Court agencies around the state.

The system, hastily installed in October to meet a federal deadline, may take years to fix, officials said.

Two years ago, a Detroit News investigation found that most of the agencies had too little staff and too much work. As a result, more than 400,000 children were getting none of the child support due them, and more than 600,000 custodial parents who were owed child support had been forced onto state assistance.

Since then, things haven't gotten better at Friend of the Court offices. State and local budget problems have resulted in hiring freezes, if not staff reductions.

The ongoing problems are making life more difficult for hundreds of parents, like Webberville resident Lara Vinluan, who depend on child support — not to mention those who are required to pay it and can face jail time if they don't.


Until the new system cranked up in October, child support payments of $341 flowed smoothly every two weeks from Ruben Davila's paychecks to Vinluan and their 3-year-old son Aidan. Afterward, the checks and amounts became sporadic.

Between October and February, the new system shorted them by $650 while continuing to deduct the proper amount from Davila's pay.

To make matters worse, Livingston County's Friend of the Court agency, where Vinluan's child support order is filed, seemed powerless to correct the problem. Local agencies have to rely on state computer technicians in Lansing to fix even the most elementary glitches.

"I contacted Livingston County many times, and the state many times, but they told me there was nothing they could do about it," said Vinluan, 34. Eventually, she received a check for $650, but that may not mean the problem has been fixed.

Vinluan and Davila say it appears the state's computer came up with the $650 check by deducting extra money from his paychecks. Further, the system now claims Davila, a Grosse Pointe Park resident also paying support for a child in Macomb County, is subject to three child support orders, rather than two, and is in arrears.

Such mixups have nearly doubled calls to Friend of the Court offices, said Jeff Albaugh, president of the Michigan Friend of the Court Association. An automated state phone system for child support clients is logging 230,000 calls a week.

More than 2,000 mistakes have cropped up since the system was activated, said Albaugh, head of Calhoun County's Friend of the Court office in Battle Creek. A task force has compiled a list of more than 60 corrections, some of them major, that programmers need to make.

"This system has the seeds of being a very good system, but a private business would have waited another year to implement it," Albaugh said.

Officials estimate it will take three years to meld data from the state's patchwork of 64 Friend of the Court offices and 83 county prosecutors into a smooth-running system.

Focus on certification

Michigan hurried to meet an Oct. 1 deadline and avoid $147.5 million in federal penalties. Failure would have resulted in an added penalty of $60 million. The federal government requires states to have automated child support systems linked to federal computers.

"The focus had been to get (federally) certified, so the blinders were put on and the (computer) vendor was told not to be distracted by anything, including user issues," Albaugh said. "Now problems are cropping up, creating more work rather than saving time."

Examples of problems abound.

Southgate parent Ken Machus Jr. had made about 10 trips in a year to Wayne County's Friend of the Court office at the Penobscot Building in Detroit, trying to clear up confusion over the $222.86 deducted weekly from his paychecks and sent to his ex-wife.

He's puzzled about the $38,000 he is listed as owing the state and his former wife, in addition to child support being deducted for a 17-year-old daughter of whom he's had legal custody for two years. More puzzling: His ex-wife also is supposed to be sending him $20 a week in support for the same daughter.

"When they switched to the computer, they sent me a letter saying it would be four to six months before my payments would be posted to my account, so I'm paying $222 a week and wondering where it's going," Machus said. "And I'm keeping very good records."

Staff is overburdened

Computer troubles only magnify tension in densely populated Wayne County, where nearly half the state's child support orders are lodged and an overburdened staff is too busy to answer phone calls.

But Wayne County Chief Judge Mary Beth Kelly, who's overseeing the agency, said the problems are being dealt with and the system promises to be a big help. In May, Wayne's office will expand with a 30-member call-in center staff, handling some of its 8,748 daily calls. The Wayne County Commission allocated $500,000 annually to fund it.

"There's no question the system works," Kelly said. "And the system has had profound benefits for Wayne County families. There's no question that with the system, more families have received more child support."

Marilyn Stephen, director of the state office of child support, acknowledged the changeover "has been a fairly bumpy ride," but said complaints have leveled off.

"A year from now, I think there will be significant improvement. Some of the larger issues will take more time."

Metro Detroit free-lance writer C. Lerner Rugenstein contributed to this report. You can reach Gary Heinlein at (517) 371-3660 or [email protected]