and Ohio, didnt have systems ready. As a result, the feds collected more than $24.3 million in fines the following year. Despite these notable exceptions, the technology began to work. By 1999, $15.8 billion in child support payments was collected, an increase of 10 percent from 1998 and double the amount collected in 1992.

But it wasnt until the Welfare Reform Act put some teeth into the enforcement program, and the federal government began implementing its own technology, that child support really became the program it was intended to be. Welfare reform required states to give child support agencies the authority to subpoena financial, employment and benefit information. At the same time, the feds built a national new-hire reporting system for tracking workers -- and their incomes -- as they move from job to job.

Now, when an employer submits a W-4 form to the state, the information is turned over to the national registry run by the feds. The database contains more than 642 million new hire and wage records, and it can be searched by states looking for information on deadbeat parents and overdue payments. With two-thirds of all support cases involving more than one state, tracking down and identifying who owes what to whom used to be a nightmare. But its not anymore, according to Kadwell. "I can now send a request to withhold income across state lines," she explained. "Without that national directory, I wouldnt know who the person was in the other state."

"What welfare reform did was strengthen, at the federal level, our efforts at locating noncustodial parents," said Donna Bonar, HHS associate commissioner, Office of Automation and Program Operations. "There are many interstate cases, so states are dependent on a telecommunications network. We can facilitate the passing of information."

Proving Their Mettle

Improving how states share information with each other and the feds has led to clear enforcement gains in such states as Montana. With a caseload of 38,000 and an annual collection rate of $50 million, Montana has one of the smaller enforcement programs in the country. But their mainframe system, installed back in 1994, has changed the way child support workers are able to do their jobs, according to Mary Ann Wellbank, administrator of the states child support enforcement division. "We no longer have cases slipping through the cracks," she said.

With the new hire reporting system run by the feds, Montana has been able to match an additional 14,000 names with families requiring support and has collected an additional $1.4 million.

Further west in the state of Washington, the first federally certified system is expected to boost collection efforts by $50 million this year, thanks mostly to technology. By providing electronic links with other agencies for enforcement initiatives, such as drivers license suspension, the Division of Child Support is able to suspend the licenses of parents delinquent in child support payments. Last year, the state received almost $20 million in payments as a result of this single effort.

Virginia, which was second after Washington to receive federal certification, has seen its collection rate rise 15 percent per year for the past five years. Nick Young, director of child support enforcement for the state, attributes these gains largely to computers. "There are just far too many cases for our workers to handle one at a time. You have to have automation or you wont keep up."

Currently, the state has 402,000 child support cases, but that number is expected to swell to 460,000 by 2010. Despite the projected increase, Young knows the number of child support workers employed by the state will remain relatively flat during the same period. As a result, the only advantage he has is to boost worker productivity through automation.

"Weve been able to empower the same number of workers to do more. Right now, we collect $5.43 for every dollar we spend. Thats

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor