Child support enforcement personnel throughout the country wage a daily battle to enforce court-ordered child support payments. Collecting the funds, often necessary to provide children with the basics of survival, is a time-consuming and frustrating process. But for child support evaders, keeping that money in their pockets is often as easy as moving to a new state where no records of their obligation exist -- until now.

South Carolina showed its determination to catch child support evaders when the state took a dying federal pilot project and turned it into a state-owned and operated system that can track deadbeat parents across state lines. The system, called the Electronic Parent Locator Network (EPLN), allows caseworkers to obtain instant access to tens of millions of state government records from participating states through networked databases.

"While interstate cases represent approximately one-third of most states' caseloads, national statistics reveal that only $1 of every $10 is collected from an out-of-state absent parent," said Martha Hill, director of West Virginia's Child Support Enforcement Division. "Innovative technology, such as EPLN, enables states to share their resources which, in turn, reduces this large margin of uncollected child support."

EPLN, now operational in 13 states and containing data from 16 (driver's license files from Texas, Mississippi and Ohio are on the system although those states are not currently EPLN members), eliminates traditional and time-consuming locate processes like manual letter-writing, and expedites wage withholdings for deadbeat parents. It gives states the ability to access data within seconds, instead of the usual weeks or months.

Currently, there are approximately 18 million cases handled by state child support enforcement agencies each year, and experts say that the more mobile society becomes, the easier it is to avoid child support obligations. According to the Urban Institute, a non profit research organization, the gap between what is supposed to be paid in child support and what is actually paid is currently about $34 billion. But by providing over 3,400 caseworkers nationwide with direct online access to a database of over 140 million records, states have an excellent tool for narrowing this margin.

FOLLOWING THE TRAIL

EPLN has several features designed to help child support enforcement workers track down deadbeat parents. First, it can do a simple search using the person's name or Social Security number, if known. The caseworker can also enter additional information such as date of birth, age range, race, sex or any combination of these to narrow the search. If an individual cannot be located, a caseworker can have the transaction queued. Then, each time the database is updated with new names and information, the queued transactions are checked. When a hit occurs, the worker is automatically notified.

In addition to online searches, a batch option is provided. This allows states to submit magnetic tape records containing Social Security numbers for off-line searches and hardcopy reports.

EPLN also contains information derived from each state's records of employment, unemployment, corrections, driver's licenses and food stamps. New and updated data is received monthly, bimonthly and quarterly, depending upon when each state normally updates its own systems. Usually, information on EPLN is no more than 30 to 45 days old.

"I think the only way to logically do this is through automation," said Hill. "In the first couple months we received 1,244 cases. Out of that we hit over 62 percent using EPLN. We cannot physically go out and look for these people, so the only way to logically do it is through technology, and EPLN is a great way to do that."

While other tools are available to caseworkers for tracking down parents, Hill said they generally don't have as much information, don't keep the information current enough and are not as easy to use as EPLN. For example, the federal Parent Locator Service is a purely batch-based system, which is much more time-consuming to