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 use than a database.
"With EPLN you put a Social Security number in and it checks all the states immediately," said Janice Alford, locate manager for Georgia. "I used to have a huge caseload, but I didn't know where to start -- all I'd have was a name. With EPLN you can take almost nothing and go in and at least try to do your job rather than feeling totally helpless," she said.
Alford was also able to save her agency money using EPLN. "I used to pay a company out of Washington $18.50 per name to track down Social Security numbers. The first year I used EPLN -- and that was with very few states online -- I saved the state $33,000."
Time is also a factor aided by EPLN. "Quite often, with the states that do not belong to EPLN, sending a locate request to another state may take six months or more before they get a response," said Betty Murphy, EPLN consultant for TransFirst Inc., the company maintaining the network's data. "By then, the child support evader has picked up and left."
EPLN has not only increased collections by tracking down parents faster, it's also saved millions of dollars in government benefits paid to families that don't receive their court-ordered support.
EXPANDING THE SYSTEM
South Carolina and TransFirst are working together to expand EPLN, which has its roots in a 1986 federal grant to the South Carolina Department of Social Services. The grant was given to determine whether or not a collection of states could be brought together to electronically view each others' data.
"At the end of the pilot we had proved that we could do that and it was beneficial," said Richard Swink, EPLN director with the South Carolina Department of Social Services. "At that time the Office of Child Support Enforcement did not wish to expand this thing out on a national basis nor fund it, so we had to make a decision."
The decision was made to continue the project by forming a consortium of states, setting up bylaws and sharing expenses. And today, the network is continuing to serve more and more states, with the newest -- Delaware -- set to come on board early this year.
"In the last nine months, we've had about a million inquires into the system," said Swink. "And as more states come on, the system becomes more powerful, because each state brings data that could hold the key to the location of yet another child support evader."
EPLN is a database management system written in NATURAL. The database contains indexed data elements that allow users to interrogate massive amounts of data in near-English language statements. EPLN also provides a SOUNDEX capability which allows the worker to enter a question mark following a person's name so that all sound-alike entries also come up in a query.
A dial-in communication line between TransFirst's headquarters in Dallas, Texas, links the computer mainframes in each of the participating states.