Child support enforcement, the massive federal, state and local effort aimed at making parents provide financial support to their children, is starting to look like

a winner. During fiscal year 1999 (the latest year with figures), nationwide collections reached $15.8 billion, nearly double the amount collected in 1992, according

to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). More notably, the percentage of single-parent families for whom government has collected support, once a stagnant 20 percent, has risen to 37 percent.

"Theres no question that information technology has improved our ability to collect child support," said Laura Kadwell, president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association and director of Minnesotas Child Support Enforcement Division.

According to Kadwell and others, its not only that technology allows the states to do more with less. "Its because the states have the ability to access a lot of information that identifies the location of parents," explained Robert Williams, president of Policy Studies Inc., a technology-services firm based in Denver.

A national registry of newly hired employees allows states to identify, locate and withhold the wages of deadbeat parents, even those who cross state lines. The registry is one of several tools the federal government has developed as part of its enhanced role in child support under the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The feds are also withholding income-tax refunds, denying passports to noncustodial par-ents who dont pay support and helping states go after a deadbeats other financial assets, including second cars, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and additional bank accounts.

These federal/state programs aimed at beefing up child-support enforcement are something new. Instead of just telling states what to do, the feds now are working with their counterparts to close gaps in the enforcement program. "Its a big turnaround," said Kadwell. "The feds have done a good job in getting all the databases together that we need to work with."

States have also taken steps of their own to improve the operation of child-support enforcement, but the results have been mixed. The biggest trend has been the consolidated payment center. Rather than have individual counties disburse payments, states have taken over this operation or have outsourced it. Unfortunately, startup problems have led to checks going out late or not at all to families, some of whom have no other means of support. Meanwhile, the statewide systems that are the backbone to child-support enforcement are starting to show their age. Many were built in the mid-90s using mainframe technology. They lack everything from relational databases to graphical user interfaces to Internet access. "Its outdated technology," Williams pointed out. "Some of the state systems are just punting along."

First Mandates, Finally Results

The use of technology to collect child support dates back a dozen years to the Family Support Act of 1988, when Congress mandated that every state had to build a child-support enforcement system. The goal was to have computers help case workers locate noncustodial parents, establish paternity and collect and disburse support money. Since 1975, federal, state and local governments have been working to reduce welfare costs by making noncustodial parents pay a greater share of the support for their families.

With 25 percent of children living in poverty and the number of child-support cases growing, using computers to handle many of the tasks performed by case workers seemed like a logical move. Congress required states to have information systems by October 1995, later extending the deadline to October 1997. With federal financing at 90 percent of the cost, states plunged ahead. But major problems arose when too many states tried to build systems at the same time, stretching to the limit the number of available programmers and project managers who understood how to design and build child-support computer systems.

When the October 1997 deadline passed, eight states, including California, Indiana, Michigan

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor