HHS system flushes out 1M deadbeat parents

A Department of Health and Human Services computer system to track down "deadbeat" parents is still several weeks from being fully completed, yet it already has identified more than 1 million parents who owe child support.

In September 1996, HHS awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Information Support Services to develop an enhanced computerized system to track down parents who have avoided their child support obligations. When completed, the expanded Federal Parent Locator Service will include two components: a National Directory of New Hires, which contains quarterly wage forms submitted by all states to the Social Security Administration, and a Federal Case Registry, which is a collection of all the child support cases within a state.

The directory of new hires became operational in October 1997, just a few days before Lockheed's deadline to launch this component. As of June, the system received about 100,000 new-hire wage reports daily— a total of 31.5 million— said Geof Jackson, Lockheed's program manager for the parent locator system.

Names appearing on the wage reports are matched with location requests sent to HHS by states. The names on the location requests are parents who have failed to pay child support and whom states are tracking down with the aid of the federal government. To date, the directory has logged more than 1 million "hits," or matches, of people who have started a new job and who owed child support, Jackson said.

Nancy Biena, assistant to the director in HHS' Office of Child Support Enforcement's division of program operations, said the names of the 1 million individuals the system has identified since October 1997 as owing child support were turned over to states. While the child support enforcement office has not tracked payments that may have been garnished from the wages of the individuals who owe child support, Biena said the system allows federal officials to forward valuable data to state enforcers much faster. HHS officials estimate there is an average of $4 billion in child support that is not paid each year.

Still, the new system has yet to prove it has resulted in children receiving support payments, said Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children For Enforcement of Support, Toledo, Ohio. States' own bureaucratic requirements have prevented the states from using information provided by the federal system to garnish wages, Jensen said.

"We haven't seen one person get a child support payment yet [as a benefit of the new system]," she said. "What good will it do if it never translates into a child getting a check?"

The system used by HHS officials before October contained new-hire data that was 12 months to 18 months old. Now that same data is only one month old, Biena said.

"In the past, by the time we had a lead on [individuals who owed child support], they had already changed jobs," Biena said. "It's much harder to find people when they cross state lines.... That's why this system...really allows us to service these cases coming in."

This month, Lockheed prepared the software it created for the case registry, for testing that will begin next month, Jackson said. The case registry will feature a database with a collection of all the child support cases that the states have on file. The idea behind this portion of the system is that it can proactively search for deadbeat parents instead of reacting to location requests sent by state officials.

Once the registry is completed, HHS officials will be able to run the new-hire database against the case registry to pro-actively search out parents owing support, Jackson said. The database can root out various data sets such as people with multiple aliases or several Social Security numbers, he said.

When completed, this would allow the federal tracking system to work independently, without having to depend upon input from the states. But the states— mired in territorial disputes with various counties and towns, some of which maintain their own child support records and technical computer glitches— have lagged behind a federal law requiring them to update child support enforcement systems, which will feed updated data for the registry.

If the states do not make child support cases electronically available, then the case registry will be useless, said Jensen, who estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of the child support enforcement caseload in the country is not computerized.

Federal law had required the states to computerize all case records by Oct. 1, 1997, or face hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties, but the deadline has been extended to May 1999. Many of the largest states, such as California, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, still do not have caseloads computerized, though some smaller states, such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, have moved to computerized records.


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