Electronic Empowerment

Growing child support caseloads and fewer resources has led some states to begin using the Internet for service delivery and case management.

by / April 16, 2002
If you are a custodial parent living in New Mexico, trying to find out when the last child support payment was made means working the phones and often waiting and wondering.

If you are on welfare or living paycheck to paycheck, the waiting can be excruciating. Rent payments, even food on the table, are in the balance as you wait to find out whether the state's Child Support Division has received a check and if money has been credited to your account.

Now, the waiting can end. Since January 2001, New Mexico has been operating one of the country's first Web-enabled child support services. The service provides realtime information on payments and allows custodial parents to set up direct deposit of checks into their banking accounts.

Parents in the program can also manage their cases online, check for news updates, such as the establishment of paternity, or modify a support order. Newcomers can apply online and noncustodial parents can check the status of their payment records as well.

"Using the Web gave us a way to get important information to the customer without the case worker having to deliver the information," said Helen Nelson, deputy director of New Mexico's Child Support Enforcement Division. "We know these parents are interested in ... the status of their case. Now they can access that information 24 hours per day at their leisure."

More Caseloads, Fewer Workers
The number of child support cases in the country has fluctuated over the years. Two years ago it rose to 17.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. At the same time, the volume of child support cases in New Mexico has risen to just over 100,000. What's not increasing, according to Nelson, are the number of state caseworkers handling as many as 1,000 cases each, an overwhelming amount by anybody's standards.

To make those figures more manageable, the state has turned to the Web in an attempt to offload routine questions and transactions that flood the division's offices on a daily basis. Cindy Hielscher, a partner with Accenture, which helped build the Web application for New Mexico, described the project as a win-win for customers and the state.

"The idea was to empower parents to manage their own case and to allow them to interact with information about their case more quickly than if they tried to call and wait for it," she explained. "They can view and update information and don't need a case worker sitting in between."

The system can answer about 80 percent of the incoming queries, according to Hielscher, and can handle a number of financial transactions automatically, saving the state money in terms of labor and improving operations through better productivity. Before the Web application went online, it took highly skilled caseworkers to operate the complicated mainframe system and interpret the information.

These requirements slowed down the caseworker's ability to handle each of the hundreds of cases in a timely manner.
Accenture developed the $1.5 million application using a component-based architecture made from Microsoft software that links to the state's federally certified legacy system.

Because some of the data is presented in several different ways to different clients - such as payment information for custodial and noncustodial parents, neither of whom can view what the other sees - the software extracts data from the legacy database and then exhibits it in a way that makes sense to the selected viewer.

"From an IT standpoint, the application wasn't much of a challenge," said Richard Quillin, CIO of New Mexico's Department of Human Services. "But we had to spend a lot of time working with clients and staff on how to present the data in a way that was understandable and useful."

Security was a major concern for the Web-enabled service. Although the goal was to make the application as versatile and useful as possible, the programmers had to be sure that users with the correct ID and PIN are the only ones with access to their accounts. In addition to those technical hurdles, the division had to devise a clear privacy policy for the various levels of access, including Web site browsing and e-mail communications, as well as for those who provide personal information.

Employers Also Benefit
In addition to helping custodial parents, the eChild application also serves state employers who pay approximately 60 percent of a noncustodial parent's child support payments through income withholdings.

Many large firms make these payments through electronic fund transfers. But for smaller firms, this option isn't always viable, so payments are made by check. To encourage a greater number of businesses to pay electronically, the Division of Child Support Enforcement has added a feature to its Web site that allows employers with 50 or fewer workers to authorize and transfer funds directly to the state.

According to Nelson, this feature will eliminate the typical two-week waiting period that occurs when paper checks are used.

In Michigan, a similar project is under way, involving employers and a child support payment center in Lansing. Participating companies are given a password to the Web site, where they can load information about the amount of employee wage withholding and then allow the state to debit the company's bank account for the amount.

Currently, there are approximately 20 employers using the service, which was developed by Lockheed Martin IMS. According to Harry Wiggins, Lockheed's vice president of child support services, the firm expects to expand the service to Michigan's other 14 state payment centers it runs and eventually will offer the same service over the Internet to other states nationwide.

"We think this is going to take off," he said. "We have found a heck of a lot of interest in Michigan and nationally."

In New Mexico, the employer Web service started in the summer and has been used by just a handful of companies. Meanwhile, the number of parents using the child support Web site has been light, with only 1140 PINs issued by the state so far, according to Nelson. But those numbers should change as the division steps up its marketing campaign to drive more users to the site.

"We estimate that between 50 [percent] and 60 percent of our customers have access to a computer, either at home or at work," said Nelson. "If we can cut by half the number of calls we receive, that's a step in the right direction."

Another much-anticipated feature of the Web application is the report management capability, which will allow senior staff to forecast changes to the child support enforcement program and use the information during budget hearings or performance review. For the first time, the state's decision makers will be able to intelligently analyze the direction child support is headed without waiting and wondering, like so many parents used to do.