The nation's child support enforcement program is a growth industry. Total collections jumped 80 percent from 1990 to 1995 -- or from $6 billion to almost $11 billion. Yet, as impressive as that sounds, the number of cases also increased over the same period, from 13 million to 20 million, according to the General Accounting Office. The result: The number of cases in which collections are being made has remained the same -- 20 percent.

President Clinton and Congress want to boost the collection rate, so they put tough, new provisions into the Welfare Reform Act that could increase child support collections by $24 billion over the next 10 years. However, one major problem stands in the way: Virtually every state relies on manual labor to process the checks that pour in.

Daunting Task

Child support payments must be distributed within two business days after receipt, according to the Welfare Reform Act. In Washington state, legislation requires all child support checks be deposited within 24 hours. To meet these mandates and process 150,000 checks every month, the Division of Child Support (DCS) would be required to triple its payment processing staff, according to Steve Spitzer, the Division's imaging project manager.

That wasn't the only problem; since the actual checks were used to process payments before they were deposited, the agency could not adhere to basic financial controls -- known as GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) -- without drastically slowing down the payment process. Lacking internal controls, DCS found that checks, which moved around to as many as six staff members before deposit, were easily mislaid, while some even disappeared. Besides the 150,000 checks, DCS also receives 60,000 monthly payments via electronic funds transfer.

Deposits were impeded further by the fact that 35 percent of the child support payments ended up classified as "unidentified" and required additional research and staff time before they could be deposited. These problem checks often resulted in delayed payments to custodial parents, some of whom rely solely on child support for income.

Model Search

Unable to hire new staff and with the child support caseload on the rise, DCS badly needed to overhaul its collection system. In 1988, the state centralized its child support payment processing efforts. By 1995, 95 percent of all child support payments made in the state were processed at DCS headquarters.

In 1997, DCS installed the Financial Management Imaging System (FMIS), the first state collection system to combine imaging and workflow to manage child support payments. "There have been other uses of imaging in child support, but not with this slant," said Steve Cesar, chief of policy for the Office of Child Support Enforcement at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

FMIS uses six Canon DR 3020 high-speed scanners to convert the checks into digital images, which are indexed and assigned receipt numbers with a database management system from Gupta. The imaging application was built using a toolkit from Diamond Head Software. FMIS was developed by DCS staff and Data Image Systems Corp. with support from the Fresno County, Calif., Family Support Division.

Once indexed, the actual checks are deposited in a bank while the images are routed to the staff for identification. Most of the payments are identified immediately when the worker enters the bank account and receipt number into the computer system. A database search pulls up previous disbursement information that can be imported into the current payment process, which saves keystrokes and time.

For the 35 percent of payments that remain unidentified, FMIS uses a modeling process to quickly narrow the search query. DCS has found that modeling correctly identifies the person for whom the payment is intended with 98 percent accuracy. Most of the unidentified checks are for first-time disbursements; others involve multiple child support payments from a single employer to cover several parents with child support obligations. Whatever the reason, the payments are no longer delayed.