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