Connecticut is one state that's serious about finding deadbeat parents. In fact, it's so serious it found a whole new way to track them down -- by posting their names and faces on Internet "most wanted" posters.
The new effort is part of the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) online Child Support Center . This site allows the public to access a
barrage of information about child support and child support enforcement through the Internet. It also provides specific information to custodial and non-custodial parents regarding their individual cases.
But for deadbeat parents, DSS went even further. Working with the Connecticut Attorney General's Office and the Judicial Department, the state managed to pass legislation allowing publication of photos and personal information about parents who are in arrears on their child support orders. Called "Connecticut's Most Wanted," the goal is similar to that of television's "America's Most Wanted" show, where people recognize criminals and report them to authorities.
"A lot of these people don't live in the state anymore," said David Berry, Communications Officer at DSS, who was responsible for designing the DSS Web site as well as the Child Support Resource Center pages. "The Internet gives us the hope that people will see pictures of these people and report them to us."
DSS also hopes the embarrassment of having a name and photo publicly displayed on the Internet may prompt offenders to turn themselves in or make payment arrangements. "It gets it out to the deadbeats that their picture is out there and it's being seen," said Berry. "We had one individual call us from Texas and say 'I'm going to pay, so can you please take my picture off?' So it's a deterrent in that it's an embarrassment to have your picture publicized and have your family and friends see it and call you."
So far "Connecticut's Most Wanted" seems to be working. "Right now we get at least five inquires a day off the site, and we've gotten about 10 referrals -- people saying they know where that person is, and here's an address, etc.," said Berry. And to date, the state actually made one arrest -- an individual who owed over $40,000.
Berry said there are two ways for someone to report a face they recognize on a "most wanted" poster -- they can send e-mail straight from the Web site, or they can call a toll-free number listed on the site. "I take the referral and pass it to the Support Enforcement Division, which is actually part of the Judicial branch. They are the legal arm that goes out and gets the court orders and gets these folks arrested."
While it's the Connecticut's Most Wanted page that gets the most hits -- "I guess there are a lot of amateur sleuths out there," said Berry -- there is plenty more information on the DSS site. For example, parents can get information about starting wage withholding procedures against a deadbeat parent. They can also figure out which office is handling their case and when a payment was last received. "We also have a system called VOICES (Voice Online Information Child Support Enforcement System) that a parent can access with a PIN number. It allows parents to find out the latest information on their case," said Berry.
DSS also has a number of publications online that users can download, including a guide to child support services, which discusses all the services the department offers, how to get them, who to call, etc. "And we want to expand the site to include even more information," said John Ford, director of strategic planning at DSS, who also provided a lot of the content for the site. "Eventually we want to put a form up
where people can apply for services online and send that directly to us."
DSS began setting up its Web page in September 1995. "The Internet technology was starting to become big, and we wanted to put out information about our agency's programs," said Berry. But with 90 different programs to administer, this was no easy task. "I took huge, three-inch binders of information on our programs and put them on the Internet," he said. "After that, we started expanding as certain programs became more important, such as welfare reform."
Connecticut established its welfare reform program pretty early, and once Clinton's welfare reform act was signed, a lot of states found they were suddenly going to be facing some big changes. "A lot of states are trying to catch up," said Ford. "They look to us for guidance, because we are already well on our way on this. We've received a number of e-mail messages on our Web site from people who are looking to implement digital imaging or child support enforcement or welfare reform, and they want to know how we did it."
And DSS is still looking for more ways to improve its site. "We deal with a lot of statistical information," said Berry, "and because we are so big, it's hard to keep updating it. Rather than put out bad information, we want to get a good system to take our database information and put it directly onto the Internet."
Ford said he would like to see DSS regulations and policy available online next, which would benefit other states as well as their own staff. "Our regional offices are not tied to us except through a mainframe, e-mail and a few other applications," Ford said. "Having regulations and policy out on the Web page would allow for access to up to the minute data and we wouldn't have to worry about updating our paper manuals. It's quite a job, but that would make life a lot easier and would enhance our own productivity."
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Connecticut wanted to track down deadbeat parents and put Social Services information online.
SOLUTION: They created a Web site with a wide range of information and a new way to track deadbeat parents.
CONTACT: Claudette J. Beaulieu, Connecticut Dept. of Social Services, 860/424-5010 .