Child support collection hits snag

January 16, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Glitches in a new computer system that officials hope will one day improve the collection of child-support payments have forced the state to delay expanding its use to Maryland's largest jurisdictions.

Montgomery County's child-support enforcement division was supposed to go on-line in early December, but the new system generated inaccurate lists of people who were behind on payments in test runs, said Norris E. Sheppard, director of the division. Since then, the county has handled payments for its 16,000 cases on its old system, while continuing to update information on the new one.

Mr. Sheppard said he had been told the new system probably would not be functioning until at least Feb. 1.

In recent months, some of the 19 smaller counties already on the system have reported delays and other problems in distributing child-support checks, leading to complaints from some families who had received payments on time for years. The state collects only about one-third of the child support owed in the cases it handles.

"We're not about to go into another large county without figuring out the problem," said Helen Szablya, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources.

The $34 million Client Information System includes child-support and public-assistance data. It has been developed over several years to comply with federal requirements that states automate human-services information, and ultimately to improve distribution of benefits and child-support payments.

Ms. Szablya said it was too early to tell whether the delays would keep the state from making an Oct. 1 deadline to receive about $10 million in federal funds, a sum that would pay for nearly all of the child-support arm of the system. In addition to Montgomery County, the state must bring on-line Baltimore City and County, Prince George's County and Anne Arundel County by that date, though some federal funding still will be available if the deadline is not met.

"We're going to do whatever we can to make [the deadline]," Ms. Szablya said. "We can't project whether we're going to get there."

Montgomery County's problems have prompted concern from other counties, where child-support supervisors are asking for a full accounting of the system's flaws before going on it themselves.

N. Lynn Brewer, director of Baltimore County's division of child support, said her office processes about 2,000 checks a day and can send payments to families within an average of 24 hours under the present system.

"We do have one of the best turnaround records in the state, and I'd like to maintain that. I fear it won't be possible," Mrs. Brewer said.

"Most of the larger counties are very, very concerned," said William L. Schmidt, administrator of the domestic-relations section of Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, which runs child-support enforcement there. "We've seen and heard and talked to our counterparts in other jurisdictions, and [the system] is extremely difficult."

In a monitoring report on Maryland's computer system completed last summer, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families cited several design problems in the child-support and welfare systems and said they had been further affected by the comings and goings of project managers.

The review concluded that counties with large caseloads would suffer even more from some of the design flaws.

Ms. Szablya said there have been improvements in some of the smaller counties, such as Cecil, Howard and Carroll, where the computer system is operating. Things have been running smoothly almost from the start in Queen Anne's and Washington counties, she said.

This weekend, the system's huge database was to be transferred from the state's Annapolis Data Center to a computer in Southbury, Conn. The transfer should make the system run faster, Ms. Szablya said. But it will not solve programming glitches.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sheppard, the Montgomery County director, said is worried that the system will not be fixed by February.

"I've indicated to the state office and to my superiors that I need to have a workable system," he said.

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