Fifteen years after Congress voted to

fund 90 percent of state costs to automate child support enforcement, only a few states are near completion.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

By Linda Dailey Paulson

Special to Government Technology

A major reason single parents often end up relying on welfare, many experts agree, is the failure of an absent parent to pay court-ordered child support. And while many state and local governments recognize that enforcing child support payments help single parent families avoid poverty and public assistance, surprisingly few integrated information technology systems have been implemented to track deadbeat parents.

One reason it is surprising is that Congress voted in 1980 to fund 90 percent of state costs to automate child support-related tasks. Seven years later, Congress created specific measures for funding child support automation systems and set an Oct. 1, 1995 deadline for implementation. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Government Accounting Office are charged with monitoring the progress in the states.

Congress may enact legislation to extend the deadline by which states must have an approved child support system by another two years. More funding may be necessary so states can meet changing requirements due to welfare reform. But such funding may not be made available as Congress sends much of the responsibility for welfare programs to the states.

ONE SO FAR

To date, only Montana has an approved child support system, and its approval is conditional. "As of this point, no one has met [the federal criteria] fully, although there are reviews going on ... that are likely to produce less than 12 declarations," said Mike Henry, director of Virginia's Division of Child Support Enforcement. "The question is, why has this been so hard? Why, with a seven-year development period, has everyone failed?" The answer, he said, is that "it is difficult to automate a manual system that is dysfunctional."

And ready applications still are not widely available on the market. "The idea of the country bringing up automated systems in child support over strapped the ability of the private sector to respond," said Henry.

COMPLICATED MONEY

A major reason that child support automation has fallen behind is that there are few experts in the states who understand how federal money is allocated. "It's a very complicated process," said Henry. "There are about a half dozen people per state who understand. Even some states have not gotten it right."

State employees attempting to design adequate systems have been at the mercy of the bidding process and have had to rely on vendor expertise. And, although states may have a system that complies with federal guidelines, these systems are not necessarily able to provide an interface between states and federal government. "Nor was there a requirement" to do so, said Vicki Turetsky, senior staff attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy. "So we have a lot of stand-alone systems. There hasn't been a clear national plan where all state systems will be able to interface with each other. It went from an optional program to a mandatory program, but there was not a shift to a national planning effort."

And interstate communication is vital to enforcing child support. Sid Johnson, executive director of the American Public Welfare Association, estimates that about 30 percent of all child support orders involve an out-of-state, non-custodial parent. "This is a terribly complicated process with non-custodial parents moving all the time and with a variety of government agencies involved," he said. "It is just an enormous challenge to get all the pieces and keep them together. It's constantly moving."

WORKING TOGETHER

Another challenge in many states is getting all the intrastate jurisdictions to work on the system. The agencies which handle child support enforcement vary from state to state. In some states, it may