GAO knocks HHS' management of states' child-support systems

A multibillion-dollar federally funded program for helping states set up computer systems to collect child-support money from deadbeat parents faces leadership problems that may hinder how successful states are in collecting support payments according to a General Accounting Office report released this month.

At issue is a program administered by the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). Since 1980 states and the federal government have spent almost $2.6 billion to automate the process of keeping track of parents who are or should be paying child support. The federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of the systems.

States have missed repeated deadlines to have the systems operational and only 15 state child-support systems have been evaluated and certified by HHS.

The delay according to GAO has been caused by OCSE which "did not define requirements promptly adequately assess systems...or seek to identify and aggressively correct problems early in the development process. The lack of sound timely federal guidance coupled with some states' own inadequate systems approaches caused systems development activities to proceed with increased risks."

GAO reported that OCSE has not been as involved in the building process of state systems as the agency should be. "By taking a reactive approach toward oversight - reviewing state progress annually or only upon request after major decisions have been made - OCSE does not monitor systems proj-ects at key points in their development thereby missing the opportunity to intervene and help redirect states when problems arise " GAO reported. "As a result federal dollars have been invested unwisely on proj-ects that were allowed to proceed in the wrong direction."

HHS is reluctant however to dictate to states how they should manage and configure their systems. Overseeing decisions such as vendor choices and hardware and software selections is not in HHS' purview according to an HHS spokesman. "Those are the kinds of decisions that appropriately rest with the states " he said. "We do agree that we probably could've provided more technical assistance."

GAO recommended that HHS verify that states follow generally accepted systems-development practices and obtain detailed status reports from the states.

In a response included in the report HHS wrote "We encourage states to follow generally accepted systems development practices. The department believes however that the role of the federal government is to provide technical assistance and guidance to states in this effort not to micromanage the states' systems development by requiring additional documentation."

HHS officials expect 80 percent of states and territories to be certified by an Oct. 1 deadline the HHS spokesman said and many states are close to completing systems. "They're not just starting the work or midway through it " the HHS spokesman said.

State systems that are operational are tracking down deadbeat parents and collecting money according to HHS. Between 1992 and 1996 child-support collections increased from $8 billion to $12 billion HHS reported.

But HHS could have done more to help according to child advocacy groups which have called for HHS to develop plans for a federally maintained system that would function as a hub to allow states with compatible systems to track down deadbeat parents in other states because 36 percent of child-support collection cases are interstate said Geraldine Jensen president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support Inc. an Ohio-based nonprofit group.

"It would've been too logical " she said. "It makes more sense just to have a national system."Jensen said the GAO report held very few surprises for her. "It's amazing $2.6 billion and very very little results " Jensen said. Of the $39 billion in child-support money owed in 1995 an average of only about 20 percent was collected by states she said.

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