Maryland has joined a high-tech network of states using a huge data base to search for parents who don't pay child support, giving local workers instant access to 100 million records -- right from their desks.
If a parent in flight from child support payments gets a driver's license, a job, unemployment benefits or food stamps, or ends up in jail in one of the nine cooperating states, there should be an electronic trail to follow, said Samuel Griswold, interim commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Social Services and chairman of the computer network's policy board.
The Electronic Parent Locator Network (EPLN) doesn't even need a full name or a Social Security number to initiate a search, unlike any other computer program available.
In fact, the 8-year-old network is considered so singular it was showcased on "Oprah Winfrey."
"If you live in an EPLN state, you best pay your child support, because we're going to find you," said Mr. Griswold, in Baltimore yesterday to announce Maryland's participation in the growing, primarily southern coalition, now in negotiations to add states in the Northeast.
Maryland, on the system for two months, already has seen results.
The state has run 500 names through the system, finding matches for more than 400. Based on other states' experiences, it expects to recoup the $55,000 cost quickly, said Meg Sollenberger, director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration.
South Carolina, for example, collected an additional $85 million in child support last year. Almost one-third of that money was used to offset the costs of welfare cases. Florida sent $53 million in payments back to other states.
On any given day in Maryland, more than $500 million in court-ordered child support is in arrears for 260,000 cases, although the state managed to collect about $228 million in the past fiscal year. The caseload is almost evenly split between families on welfare and non-welfare cases that have asked the state for help.
Finding a parent and making a parent pay are two different things, Mr. Griswold acknowledged. But there is no hope of getting payments if the parent can't be located, he pointed out.
"It doesn't do the entire job, but it does the most critical part," he said.
Representatives from other states already on board -- including Virginia, both Carolinas, Georgia and Florida -- were effusive in their praise for the system.
"From a user's point of view, it can't be beat," said Janice Alford of Georgia. "It has tremendous advantages."
Because the system can find missing Social Security numbers, for example, it can help states intercept tax refunds to parents in arrears on child support. In North Carolina, that feature alone led to more than $100,000 in new collections.
The federal government has a similar system, which uses a much larger data base. But it can't compete in terms of speed, Mr. Griswold noted, and its records may not be as current.
The fastest comparable program needs at least 48 hours to produce results, while this network tracked down a name within seconds during a local demonstration. And the information it pulled up on various cases had been entered through October of this year.