Playing for Keeps

For nearly 20 years, Oakland County, Mich., has had its own child-support enforcement system. Now the state wants the county to give it up.

by / June 11, 2001
A cornerstone of this countrys child- support enforcement program is the use of computer technology to ensure that parents provide financial support to their children. In fact, the federal government saw technology as so crucial to the programs success that it mandated statewide collection, disbursement and case-management systems in every state and territory.

This mandate, originally set in 1988, began to make its mark after 1997 when eight states were fined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for not having statewide systems ready. Michigan missed the deadline for a number of reasons, but most notably because several counties already had their own systems in place. The 1996 welfare reform law requires states to operate a single system for collection and disbursement of child-support payments. With 10 counties, including two of the states largest, remaining separate from the states system, Michigan was fined $38 million this year by HHS. Next years fines could reach $50 million if the situation doesnt change.

So, like a parent disciplining uncooperative children, Gov. John Engler said enough is enough. In his State of the State address this year, the governor expressed his dismay with the situation: "I am frustrated and, quite frankly, fed up that our child-support enforcement system has failed to serve so many children. Because a handful of counties have not participated in a federally mandated, statewide child-support system, Michigan will suffer a $38 million federal penalty."

Then he drew a line in the sand. "If any county fails to participate in the state system, I will work with the Legislature and the chief justice to terminate that countys responsibility for child-support enforcement." And for good measure, Engler warned that any additional fines incurred by the state because of local foot dragging would be paid by the counties.

Kicking and Screaming

One by one, Michigans 10 rebellious counties have thrown in the towel and agreed to convert their computerized child-support systems over to the state. The latest was Oakland County, located near Detroit. With a population of more than 1 million and more than 75,000 child-support cases, Oakland County has one of the largest support programs in the state.

Oakland Countys multimillion-dollar mainframe system has been continuously improved over its 20-year existence. As recently as last year, the county spent more than $1 million on upgrades, with more investment planned for 2001 until the governor announced his ultimatum. It is used by more than 250 county workers and interfaces with 20 other county databases, including the county court, law enforcement, management and budget, probation and the prosecutors office. In addition, the countys system is integrated with an imaging subsystem that manages more than 10 million document images and an interactive voice response (IVR) system that allows clients to check on the status of payments and schedule court appearances, among other activities.

"We believe we have a superior system to the one the state is dictating we use," said Robert Daddow, assistant deputy county executive of special programs. "Our number-one concern is service to the clients. The states concern is about penalties, not about which system works best."

Daddow and Phil Bertolini, Oakland Countys director of information technology, cite a litany of costly trade-offs the county will have to make in order to convert its system into one that is part of Michigans $200 million state system. At the top of the list is the lack of support for the imaging system, which will be useless once the county switches systems and is no longer able to index images with its child-support cases. The countys highly popular IVR system will be replaced by what Daddow calls nothing more than an answering system.

Oakland County is also worried about the time it will take the state to convert the countys system and the cost. Daddow points out that Michigan has been working on a statewide child- support system since 1988, but only has half of the counties online so far. The system has been under development for so long that the platform on which the system runs is no longer marketed by the vendor who makes it.

"The state refuses to tell us how many of its staff will work on the conversion project," complained Daddow. "And they have said they will pay conversion costs as they define it, so its not clear how the project will be done. One thing I know is that switching to their system is going to cost us in labor and money."

The state readily admits that Oakland County has a good child-support enforcement system already in place. "But its a federal requirement that counties be part of our statewide system," explained state Family Independence Agency spokeswoman Karen Smith. "We are paying enormous penalties when were not in compliance."

Smith points out that while Oakland Countys system has several unique features that meet its needs, the system lacks the ability to search the Federal Case Registry and the National Directory of New Hires or to exchange information with these national databases. These databases have been singled out as reasons why the nations child-support enforcement program has nearly doubled collections to $15.8 billion in a seven-year period, according to federal officials. In addition, the Oakland County system doesnt have access to Michigans data warehouse, which contains vital information on state cases.

Coming to Terms

In March, Oakland County capitulated and signed a letter of intent to cooperate with the state and convert its computers, software and databases over to the statewide system. The conversion is expected to be completed by September 2002.

But the states strong-handed actions have angered Oakland County officials, who feel many questions remain unanswered, but most importantly that little effort was made to save some of the county systems more effective features. "They should have asked us what we are doing right so they could replicate it [at the state level]," said a frustrated Daddow. "Instead, they told us to drop our system or else."