Child-support tracking draws fire

Federal and state governments have wasted billions of dollars in a 12-year program to develop computer systems to track down parents skipping out on child-support payments, according to a study released last month.

Since 1984, when Congress made federal funding available to states to develop child-support tracking systems, federal and state governments have spent more than $2.2 billion on computer systems that are supposed to track dead-beat parents who fail to pay child-support payments, according to the study, which was conducted by the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support Inc. (ACES) , Toledo, Ohio.

But only Montana met the Oct. 1, 1995, deadline to have a system on-line, and since then only four state systems - in Delaware, Georgia, Virginia and Washington - have been certified by the Office of Child Support and Enforcement (OCES), the Department of Health and Human Services office that manages the program.

ACES officials say the delay and waste were caused by a combination of OCES mismanagement and "vendors milking the system and dragging it out," said Geraldine Jensen, ACES' president.

"It's really appalling that these computer vendors have ripped off the federal government for so long and kept food out of the mouths of children," she said. OCES officials could not be reached for comment.

The study also found that:

* Twenty-three states were forced to use multiple vendors to design and install the systems, creating a complex set of management problems.

* Nineteen states reported problems with the conversion of data from legacy systems to the new systems.

* Four states reported problems with manually entering data from paper copies of child-support cases.

* States reported a lack of technical expertise available to develop systems, problems with processing interstate cases, systems not interfacing with welfare systems and failure of some systems to send collected child-support payments to families.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) said the computer program has had "pitiful results" and requested that the General Accounting Office investigate possible mismanagement by OCES and vendors.

The report will be the second time GAO has investigated the child-support system. In 1992, GAO reported that a number of state computer systems were poorly designed.

Just how much a GAO investigation will bring about changes in the computer program is debatable, said a source familiar with the computer program who talked on condition of anonymity.

"All this has been discussed before for years," the source said. "Congress has never been interested in child support enforcement. They're much more interested in welfare reform."

Jensen agreed, saying the child-support computer program has languished as Congress has dealt with welfare issues.

Troubled From the Start

The child-support computer program has been in trouble since 1984, when Congress first required states to develop them. States missed the 1988 deadline to have systems in place and were given until Oct. 1, 1995, to install them.

Last year, Hyde and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to move management of the program from OCES to the Internal Revenue Service.

The bill was never taken up in committee because of the aversion many members have to giving the IRS any more responsibilities, according to a Woolsey staff member.

Hyde and Woolsey have talked with Social Security Administration officials about taking over the management of the program because the agency is experienced in collecting funds and disbursing payments. SSA, with its 1,300 field offices, also is accessible nationally.

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