Legislation would expand slow child-support effort

When President Clinton signs welfare reform legislation this month a controversial program to develop state computer systems for tracking deadbeat parents that is already years behind schedule will be expanded.

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act the Department of Health and Human Services requires additional databases and networks for the child-support computer systems each state has to develop. These systems which Congress mandated in 1984 are supposed to track parents who are not paying child support.

But critics of the systems are skeptical that the federal government and the states can develop the databases and properly network the systems because the child-support computer program is already so far behind schedule. Although Congress required states to have systems for tracking deadbeat parents running by October 1995 Montana was the only state to meet that deadline.

Last year Congress gave the other states another two years to complete their systems. As of this month six more states - Arizona Delaware Georgia Virginia Washington and West Virginia - have had their systems certified. Certifications for Connecticut New Hampshire Utah and Wyoming are pending.

"If you don't have the systems now then you can't add to them " said Geraldine Jensen president of the Association for Children for Enforcement Support Inc. (ACES) Toledo Ohio. "All this is another empty promise. It's going to be a nightmare."Case RegistriesUnder the new act states also will be required to develop a state case registry which contains records on each person who is receiving state assistance by Oct. 1 1998. The database will be shared with other states and the federal government to compare data and track parents who cross state lines.

States also will be required by that date to automate the collection and disbursement of child-support payments which some states already have done. And by October 1997 states must have established a state directory of new hires to which employers will submit names of their new employees.

The Social Security numbers of these new hires will be matched against the Social Security numbers in the state case registry database to locate people failing to pay child support.

The bill also calls for the federal government to set up a national clearinghouse for information that states can access for data on parents who have crossed state lines. One-third of the 19 million cases of child-support orders involve interstate transactions according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement which is part of HHS.

Since 1984 federal and state governments have spent $2.2 billion on the child-support systems which have run into numerous networking problems and glitches according to a report ACES released in June.

Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) have asked the General Accounting Office to look into possible mismanagement of the computer program most of which has been paid for by the federal government [FCW July 1].Higher CostsWith the new requirements the cost for the systems certainly will increase said Vicki Turetsky senior staff attorney for the Center for Law and Social Policy Washington D.C. Money will be difficult to find because states will be using budgets to comply with other parts of the welfare legislation that call for restructuring programs.

"A big concern of ours is that the states that haven't gotten far in developing their systems -and there are a lot - will have a heck of a time trying to meet the old and new requirements " Turetsky said.

A top GAO official familiar with the child-support system also was very doubtful that states would be able to meet the new requirements because deadbeat parents tend to move around so much. "To be honest the computer capability for this has been oversold and it never was implemented right " the GAO official said. "This is just going to make it that much more complicated."

Officials at HHS' OCSE which has been criticized for its management of the computer program declined to comment on the legislation. "We haven't even seen it yet " an OCSE spokesman said.

But a spokesman for Woolsey said the congresswoman supports the system changes and does not believe states will have difficulty making them despite past difficulties.

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